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

Tongue of the Dragon

On our return to Thailand, it was paramount to commence our tropical fruit indulgence. Courtesy of the Chiang Mai morning market, our bellies are the happy recipients of a coconut and a mango (in fruit shake form), three rose apples, a green mango (with chili/sugar of course), and a pink dragon fruit. The last one made a particularly lasting impression on us.

Preparing a fruit shakeEnjoying the fruit shake
This enormous fruit shake contained a full coconut (meat + water) and an entire mango

LL eating dragon fruit
This time we had dragon fruit with pink flesh rather than our standard white innards…

Pink tongues
…and we have the stains to prove it

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

Top 10 Beaches of Our Sabbatical

We wrote this list while lounging around on the beach in Zanzibar, just to make you hate us. The criteria are totally subjective and not documented anywhere, but involve some combination of most beautiful setting, best food, best amenities, and best overall vibe.

In order from most to least amazing:

  1. Mandrem, Goa, India – we spent a week on Mandrem being beach bums at the end of our stay in India.
  2. Nai Yang, Phuket, Thailand – Nai Yang was so beautiful we had to go twice, first at the beginning of our Southeast Asia jaunt in January, and then for a long weekend trip with Seema and Mark in April.
  3. Galu Beach, Mombasa, Kenya – an extremely laid-back spot to kite surf – or not – and enjoy beautiful water and endless soft sand.
  4. Long Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam – we spent four nights on Long Beach in February, before we started our volunteer assignments in Thailand, and we ate chili lemongrass shrimp every day.
  5. Khlong Nin, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we spent four nights at Khlong Nin beach on Ko Lanta in January, directly after our stay in Phuket. It was a beautiful setting, but not quite as amazing an overall package as Nai Yang.
  6. Kendwa, Zanzibar, Tanzania – it wasn’t easy to get there on foot from Nungwi, but it was worth the trek, as it offered a beautiful stretch of relatively-secluded beach.
  7. Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania – we spent four nights on Nungwi, in a hotel room with an incredible ocean view. Unfortunately there isn’t much beach to speak of at low tide, but Kendwa and East Nungwi, nearby, offer good swimming opportunities.
  8. Khlong Dao, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we finished up our January visit to Ko Lanta with two nights at Khlong Dao, which was nice but not as secluded or as pretty as Khlong Nin. We did find one of my favorite Thai restaurants in the world at Khlong Dao – Thai Is-San.
  9. Nha Trang, Vietnam – the beach was not as nice as we remembered it from our first visit in 2007, but the tropical fruits are still the best I’ve ever tasted.
  10. Matemwe, Zanzibar, Tanzania – fascinating tidal flat landscape at low tide, pretty (but skinny) stretch of beach at high tide. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a place to stay, but it’s certainly worth a day trip.

If it makes you hate us any less, our tans will most certainly have faded by the time we arrive back in Seattle on September 22, and we do not have any more beach time scheduled between now and then.

Why is Western Veg Food So Boring?

During our stays in India and among Burmese people in Thailand this year, Kenny and I have often observed that vegetarian food is so much more interesting – and delicious – in communities where eating meat is not the norm. In the case of our South Indian friends, the refusal to eat meat stems from religious observance, while for our Burmese friends (especially the tribe with whom I was working), it’s simply a result of the high price of meat. Both cuisines feature some of the best vegetarian food I have ever consumed.

This observation was reinforced several times this week, when I heard many of my carnivorous friends proclaim that South Indian cuisine has revolutionized their idea of what non-meat food could be. All of the meals we’ve eaten in Bangalore – especially those at Archana’s parents’ house – have been spicy, varied, and spectacularly delicious. South Indians just make incredible use of lentils, beans, whole grains, tomatoes, okra, coconuts, jackfruit, chilies, and even plain old potatoes.

What a contrast after the steamed broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower that were often served as a side dish in London and environs. Bleh. Even Seattle, which features a relatively creative restaurant scene and a plethora of ethnic restaurants, is fairly boring on the vegetarian front. I’d kill for a real South Indian restaurant.

Live from TPE

Here’s Lauren about to board our flight to SFO, with Little Vid and a mango we picked up in Chiang Mai this morning. We’ll see the real Vid in about 12 hours!

Heading out of TPE

Due to the magic of time zones, our flight out of Taipei leaves at 11PM tonight, and our connection in SFO also leaves for JFK at 11PM tonight. It’s going to be a long day…night…whatever it is.

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

Getting a Burmese Education

Today was my last official day in the office. As we have done many times over the past three months, one of my colleagues (we’ll call her Q) and I spent a long time lingering after the lunch plates had been cleared and talking about Burma.

Q told me that when she was a high school student in Burma, she knew that her country’s educational system was broken and she wanted it to change, but her dissatisfaction with the government did not reach any further at that point. Later, when she was studying at university, her father told her that she was unlikely to learn anything of value from her regular coursework, and advised her to seek out training from a private tutor on the side. Q’s tutor was a well-informed man, and a former member of the democracy movement. Every day he told humorous stories that kept the students entertained and engaged. Only when Q arrived home after class and had time to reflect did she realize the important lessons that her teacher was relating through these stories.

Through this informal education, Q started to realize that the world outside Burma was likely quite different, and she developed a strong interest in moving to Thailand. J, a high school classmate of hers, had invited her to come to Thailand back when they finished Grade 10. J’s mother was already in Thailand and had founded an organization where they could continue their education and work for the democracy movement. At the time, Q had opted to attend university instead, but when she finished she knew that it was time to accept J’s offer.

When she arrived in Thailand, Q learned things that shook the foundation of her entire educational experience – concepts like human rights, women’s rights, and democracy. It was the first time she had ever been taught that she was afforded basic rights simply by virtue of being human, and that the practices of the  Burmese government were not acceptable. She learned that as a woman, she could take an equal role in society and that she need not be subservient to her future husband. And it was her first exposure to the governing systems of other countries, and the idea that people in other parts of the world could speak and live freely.

After completing an internship program at our organization, Q enrolled in an advanced women’s leadership course. She then returned here and took on a leadership role in our organization.

Q values the time that she spent learning with her teacher while she was in university, but she can’t help feeling some jealousy of our organization’s recent crop of interns, none of whom attended university before migrating to Thailand. Q arrived at age 25; some of our interns are only 17 when they get here, including Q’s sister, who came last year. Many of them did not finish high school. These young women have even more time to gain exposure to the world outside Burma and experience working for their community. They also have access to excellent educational programs in Thailand. On the other hand, they have less firsthand experience with life and education inside Burma, and less exposure to veterans of the democracy movement. Either way, their dedication to continuing their education is admirable, and the diversity of perspectives that they bring to our organization is a tremendous asset.

Border Math

My co-worker just educated me on how immigration works along the Thai/Burma border (if one making a border crossing is pulled over by the Thai police):

  1. If everyone (including the driver) has valid papers, they are free to continue on their journey.
  2. If no one (including the driver) has valid papers, everyone is arrested and has to either pay bail of 2,000 Baht per-person (~$60) or spend 14 days in prison. Assuming they aren’t arrested again in the interim, they are refunded the 2,000 Baht once seven months have passed.
  3. If there is a mix of people with and without papers, everyone is still arrested. Those without papers have the same choice of 2,000 Baht bail or 14 days imprisonment. if there are passengers with papers, they have a much steeper payment to face in order to avoid a jail term of seven months. Negotiations start at 75,000 Baht ($2,250, a year’s salary in these parts), and can be lowered to 50,000 Baht. If the driver has papers, he’s in even deeper water as the facilitator of the undocumented immigrant trafficking.