April 29, 2013

Sukhothai UNESCO World Heritage Site | Sangkhalok pottery and other shopping | vegan Thai food

I enjoyed everything about our recent trip to Thailand, but perhaps the highlight was our visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sukhothai. Sukhothai, was the original capital of the Kingdom of Siam, or modern-day Thailand. It dates from the 13th and 14th centuries. Rather than write about it here, I'll direct those interested in more detail to visit the UNESCO Web site for more information.

I was very excited to see the excavated architecture and Buddhas, and a little frustrated that we were on a tram tour to visit each of the main areas instead of having unlimited access to everything that caught my eye. On the other hand, it was 105˚F and realistically, if we'd attempted to walk or bike the entire site, I think we might have expired before seeing a fraction of it.

Our guide is at bottom, left.

Having a guide meant that not only did we have an ongoing commentary about what we were seeing, but we had someone to answer our questions. I wish I could remember the things we "learned" as we observed the ruins, but obviously I didn't learn them well enough.

The site covers a little less than 27 sq. miles, with some areas more restored than others.

I think I read somewhere that you could walk around the central and northern zones of ancient Sukhothai in about six hours, that is, if you didn't faint from the heat.

I think we only saw the central zone, which is the most restored area.

I found the ancient ruins mesmerizing and could easily have spent the whole day wandering from building to building.

As we passed the reservoir, Ken pointed out to me a woman bathing — you can't see her in the photo. I was practically ready to jump in there myself.

Our esteemed host.

Wherever we went on our travels, we were likely to come across a street dog. If I ever travel in Thailand again, I'll carry dog food with me at all times.

We hadn't done much shopping yet for souvenirs or gifts, so after we left the UNESCO site, our hosts took us to several places where they like to shop. We visited a jewelry store and a large clothing and textile store, but I wasn't having any luck finding suitable items.

Then we went to a nearby historical town where Sangkhalok pottery is made in ancient kilns. We could see local artisans throwing and hand-painting dishes and other objects. Sangkhalok was the name given to ceramic ware produced by a number of kilns in Sukhothai Province during the early 14th to late 16th centuries.

It was overwhelming, really, and I was having a hard time imagining how we would get any of the large, fantastic  pieces I was ogling home.

Everywhere I turned were beautiful items but I was convinced that pottery was not the most sensible thing to buy and carry on the plane.

The proprietor kept giving us little gifts of tiny celadon elephants and small bowls, and, well, that's a good tactic for convincing someone they should buy something.

What I really wanted to buy was a beautiful ceramic garden bench, but I managed to avoid doing that and started zeroing in on a plate, instead. Our hosts were buying plates and it seemed to be contagious.

This is the 14" plate we bought, along with the free stand it came with. It was wrapped really well and we safely carried it on the plane in a bag. Security is far more casual in Thailand than it is here, and no one asked us what it was or asked that it be unwrapped. It's lead-free and usable as a serving platter, and now sits happily on display  in our dining room reminding us of our trip.

We made one additional stop at a large textile shop selling traditional clothing and fabrics, where I found a couple of woven cotton throws with an elephant theme for gifts, and a cotton shirt for me.

There was just enough time left to stop for a light supper before we headed to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok. I photographed the restaurant sign in case any of you want to eat there. :)

It was a fairly typical roadside restaurant with outdoor tables. By this time it was probably only about 85-90˚ so perfectly comfortable for outdoor dining.

As usual, Ken and I had vegan food while everyone else had meat.

Also as usual, our food was delicious. (The round pieces on the plate are fabulous tofu, somehow made into a tube shape.)

This had to be the weirdest and least favorite of the Thai desserts I tried. For some reason, I found the dessert really unpleasant, though the Thai diners seemed to love it. The white part is coconut milk but it's got a gelatinous lumpy texture that really creeped me out. There are also pieces of ice. Not to mention the green things which looked like either worms or string beans — neither of which should be in dessert. The green things weren't really green beans, they  were made from rice flour and pandan, a sweet leaf that appears often as a flavoring agent in sweets. Pandan actually has a very nice taste, but the appearance and texture of the green part of the dessert was a little too much for me. It's true I'm not a big dessert person, but holy cow. Here's a link to a recipe.

If you're really curious as to how the green things are made, as I was, here's a video that demonstrates how it's done. The dessert is called lod chong. (The video is produced by a company that sells cooking supplies to which I have no affiliationbut it illustrates the process very well which is why I'm embedding it here, and you can just ignore the sales pitch, unless of course you decide you must make the lod chong at home!)

One last quick stop at a food stand to procure dried bananas and salted tamarind, then we had to say goodbye to two of our friends who live in Phitsanulok, and head to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok to collapse in our bed.

In case you are interested in more about Thailand:
Thailand post #1
Thailand post #2
Thailand post #3

Thailand post #4

April 23, 2013

Have you ever appeared on a billboard? — work, fun and food in Phitsanulok

Organizing my photos and writing about our trip is wearing me out, as I'm sure it's testing the patience of my readers, but my husband has requested I keep going to preserve our memories. Today I'm covering my husband's speaking engagement at a University in Phitsanulok, and also some interesting Thai food in a unique restaurant.

Our three day jaunt to Phitsanulok had two main purposes — my husband gave a conference talk to professors from five universities, and we got to visit the historic town of Sukhothai, where a UNESCO site preserves the ancient Thai capital, documenting the first period of Siamese art and the creation of the first Thai state. (You can read the long description of Sukhothai, here.) There was a third purpose as well which was to shop for gifts. This post will cover day two of our visit.

On our second day in Phitsanulok, (I wrote about our first day here) rather than visit museums as had been planned for me, I chose to attend Ken's talk at the university. After a simple lunch of vegetables and rice provided by the university, we were off to the conference room.  Do you see the photo above? It's an image of the billboard with Ken's photo that greeted us as we approached the entrance to the college campus. Seriously, if it had been my photo up there I might have jumped out of the car and run away.

Professors and teachers are revered in Thailand, and even as the professor's wife, I was given great respect and attention. Students wanted to bring me snacks and beverages and carry my purse — it was a little unnerving as I like to keep a low profile and it wasn't easy to do. However, one of the snacks I was given was a local treat of fried bananas made from a type banana that grows in the area, and they're so tasty that I was grateful to be the recipient of such a unique treat. They are unusual, small bananas that are finger-sized and very firm and chewy. They are addictive, and though I wasn't planning to, I ate the whole boxfull.

The bananas also can be found dried, and we bought boxes to bring home for our kids and for us. If you ever find yourself in Phitsanulok, look for the fried bananas!

The dried bananas are not really like anything I can describe —  firm and chewy. I'm not sure if the fried ones are made from fresh or dried bananas, but I think dried. The Thai name is bang krathum which translates to "sun-dried banana."

After the lecture, we were taken to see the King Naresuan Shrine and Wang Chan Palace Ruin. Phitsanulok was the birthplace of King Naresuan the Great of Ayuthaya (reign : 1590 - 1605). The shrine commemorates his life. Inside the small white building you see in the photo is a statue of the King and an altar.

The statue of the King is a little hard to see clearly because of the lighting, but you can observe the flowers and other offerings brought by people who have come to ask for favors or good luck. While we were there a woman came in with so many large plants she had trouble fitting them on the altar. The Thai people regard the monarchy with great reverance.

After returning to the hotel and resting a bit, Ken and I went back to visit the temple near our hotel. After spending time at the temple, we browsed the open-air market next to the temple and bought an embroidered dress for our granddaughter. It was a completely impractical white dress, but so cute, and at only $6, I couldn't resist.

We went to dinner at a very beautiful restaurant where the cooking is unusual rather than typical Thai — for the meat eaters. (I would have photographed the display but I didn't want to feature all the meat.)

For the vegans, it was rice and veggies. Please don't take this as a complaint because I'm always thrilled to receive vegan food, but it was interesting that no alternative to meat, like tofu for instance, was available.

In addition to the vegetables, we also had two soups. I don't remember what this one was.

The little round balls are mushrooms, in case you were wondering.

The soup you see above was galangal soup. Galangal, in case you aren't familiar with it, is similar to gingerroot in appearance. It is harder than gingerroot and has peppery overtones.  The soup was really good but many, if not most, of the things in it were not edible — things like hard slices of galangal and kaffir lime leaves — so mainly it was the liquid that was consumed.

This was an interesting dish. You make a little pocket with a betel leaf and fill it with chopped gingerroot, chopped limes, chopped peanuts and sauce and pop it into your mouth. We had special sauce without fish. Eating the leaves was a challenge for me because I am neurotic about not eating raw food I can't peel when traveling in other countries, but I'm happy to say I didn't get even a tinge of stomach woes on our trip. Maybe because ginger is good for digestion.

For dessert there was one of the icy-fruity things I mentioned in a previous post that I wasn't so fond of. I think the frozen part was flavored with pandan — a tropical plant that is used a lot in Thai cooking. The leaves give a sweet taste to foods. Pandan tea is a popular drink, as are bottled pandan beverages.

The restaurant building itself was quite wonderful. It was a converted traditional Thai house of multiple large rooms, both indoors and out.

By the time we finished dinner we were all exhausted and ready to head back to the hotel to rest up for our last day in Phitsanulok.

In case you are interested in more about Thailand:
Thailand post #1
Thailand post #2
Thailand post #3

April 16, 2013

Visiting wats and eating noodles in Thailand

Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat

Ever since I wrote about visiting the Grand Palace in my last post, I've been getting junk mail inviting me to gamble at the online Grand Palace. Scary, isn't it, how all our online actions are being monitored? Oh well, undaunted, I continue with my travelog.

Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat

On our third day in Thailand we were collected at our hotel at 4:30 a.m. and taken to the airport to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight to Phitsanulok City, in Phitsanulok Province in the north of Thailand. Phitsanulok Province borders at its northernmost boundry with Laos. 4:30 a.m. might sound early, but considering I'd been waking up at 2 a.m. each night, it really was kind of late. My husband was to give a talk at a university in Phitsanulok City the next day, and we planned to do some sight-seeing, including a visit to the ancient Thai capital of Sukkothai.

Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat

We arrived at our excellent hotel in the morning and had a meal at the hotel restaurant buffet. The hotel room included a breakfast buffet the size of which I have never seen before. Every imaginable food, from roasted potatoes to local fruit to traditional Thai dishes filled an area the size of a large restaurant. It was spectacular and meat-based. We could have eaten potatoes and fruit and been full — in fact we were full — but our host had a long conversation with the staff, and the cooks prepared plates of veggies and rice for us. So we ate again. I regret not having photos of the food choices but it was all so overwhelming, and not vegan, and I admit it, I screwed up in the photography department. You'll just have to trust me that the restaurant was a huge vegan torture chamber — so much beautiful food based on animal ingredients. As Molly said in a comment on my first Thailand post, "Thai food has such great vegan potential."

Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat. The sign says that only monks can sit on the platform.

After eating, we were told we had a little while to settle into our room and rest before sightseeing began. While some of our group had flown to Phitsanulok, others had driven, and had not yet arrived as it was a long way from Bangkok. We were on a very different clock than our hosts, and while they were probably tired, we were too hyper to rest. We were sort of under the control of our Thai hosts, and didn't have much authority over the plans — seriously, sometimes we didn't even know what the plans were, or thought we did only to discover we were completely wrong, or the plans had been changed and we were clueless. I'm not complaining, only trying to explain why we didn't visit the elephant sanctuary, or the National Park, or other well-known tourist destinations you may have heard of. We were guests — my husband a "working guest" — and our hosts seemed unhappy when we went off on our own, as any host might be. We had an amazing experience with our hosts — one that ordinary tourists might not have. But, guests or not, here we were in Thailand, and we couldn't just sit in the room digesting our food. We'd been awake since 2 a.m. We were generally jetlagged and strangely hyper. We had to MOVE.

Phra Buddha Chinnarat at Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat.

We saw that Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat (also known as Wat Yi), a well-known Buddhist temple built in the 1300s on the banks of the Nan River, was walking distance from our hotel. It houses one of the most famous gilded Buddha statues in Thailand. The Buddha statue, called Phra Buddha Chinnarat, was molded more than 700 years ago. The people you see in the foreground are sitting cross-legged or kneeling on the floor, paying their respects to the Buddha. You never have your feet pointing towards the Buddha because in Thailand, feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body, and pointing them at the Buddha would be very disrespectful.

Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat

The temple is really a very large complex of buildings, gardens and ruins surrounded by high walls. As you can see from my collection of photos, there are multiple Buddha statues, and many locations to meditate or pray. Each one I've shown you was from a different building. There are rules for entering any of the buildings — of course you must remove shoes and hats — but there are clothing requirements as well like no shorts or short skirts, no bare arms. I had 3/4 sleeve shirts that could be rolled up or down, and a long skirt or pants for visiting temples.
Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat

We loved the temple so much we went back there two more times before leaving the city just to mellow out on the floor of our favorite building.

Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat

When our hosts finally decided it was time to do a little sightseeing, guess where they wanted to take us? They were a little surprised to hear we'd gone by ourselves. Since we'd already visited Wat Phra Rattana Mahatat, we headed to the other local spots of interest — the Buddha factory and a folklore museum.

The factory makes cast bronze Buddhas, and it was intriguing to see the multiple Buddhas in various stages of completion.

It was outrageously hot, and hard to imagine working on the sculptures without fainting.

There were people chiseling, scraping, and worst of all, soldering in the factory.

It was an open-air factory, but there didn't seem to be any air — or protection from the copious dust.

We left the factory and headed across the street to Sergeant-Major Dr. Thawi-Pim Buranakhet's Folklore Museum. The museum looked small on the outside, but it went on endlessly on the inside. It held an amazing collection of folk-arts, crafts, basketry, pottery, textiles, toys, traps and ancient kitchen utensils. There were also agricultural implements and machines and an unbelievable assortment of household objects. The strangest thing was the fish room, where there were tanks and more tanks of fish found in Thailand. I hadn't expected that in a folk art museum, and was a bit dismayed to see the large fish in the small tanks. The museum wasn't air-conditioned and while I like heat, it tested my patience after a while.

The last place we visited was horrible. It was advertised as a Thai bird garden, but it was more like a bird prison, and I got out as fast as I could. But not before one of the birds put its long beak through the cage bars and tried to steal my lens cap. I feel very powerless in a place like that where I want to free the birds, not look at them cooped up in barren cages.

In the later afternoon, our party of three was joined by the other members of our group, and we headed out to see another Buddhist temple, or wat. We arrived at the wat, got out of our car (it was actually a limo) and suddenly, after much discussion in Thai that Ken and I didn't comprehend, we got back in the limo and drove off. When we asked for clarification we were told we were going to a different wat first and would return to this one later. (We didn't return.)

We eventually found ourselves at a Chinese Buddhist temple, which we were told was run by a foundation that feeds the poor. They earn money through donations and by selling food products like rice noodles, dried bananas, and an interesting product consisting of dried tamarind pieces coated with salt that people eat as a snack. We were also told that all food prepared in the temple was totally vegetarian.

Shaking sticks before the Buddha.

We spent quite a lot of time at the temple while various members of our group knelt before the Buddha praying,  paying their respects and asking for their fortune to be revealed. You shake a container of sticks over and over until one stick falls out.

A good fortune!

The numbers on the fallen stick are matched to numbers on small papers with fortunes, and the paper with the number that matches your stick reveals your fortune. I love the rattling sound the sticks make as they are shaken in the can.

The temple was presided over by an older Chinese couple who spoke no English, and only the woman spoke Thai. She insisted that she wanted to feed us and apparently wouldn't take "no" for an answer. She grabbed packages of noodles and headed to the kitchen. This was not a kitchen that would pass any sort of inspection, according to my husband, but I chose not to look too carefully. Why get myself upset.

A large pot of noodles with tofu, cabbage and maybe soy protein, was offered to us. We pulled rickety, mix-matched chairs up to a rickety table and enjoyed a delicious, light supper in a lovely place not too many tourists have probably been.

The noodles were just like something I might make at home only mine would probably have less oil. Oil sure does make things taste good, though, doesn't it? And the noodles themselves were far superior to what we usually have — perfect taste and texture.

From the patio, we could see the rice paddies below. Much rice is grown in the region. *

The last photo is of a Thai street dog, of which there are many. Someone told me the dogs like to hang around temples because they are likely to be fed there.I hope that's true.

In case you are interested in more about Thailand:
Thailand post #1
Thailand post #2

 *A side note on rice-related health issues: By now you must have read about the arsenic (and cadmium) found in U.S. grown rice. The latest news is that rice grown in China, Taiwan, Thailand and Bhutan has tested very high for lead, posing a threat to people for whom rice is a major dietary component, but especially dangerous for children. Rice from Italy, Czech Republic and India also tested high, and other countries will probably be added as testing continues. When I say "rice" I mean all rice products such as grain, flour and noodles.

Boston — my heart aches for you.