Can you Spare a Square?

January 26, 2007 19 Comments »

Night Market in Mae Hong Song

Night Market in Mae Hong Son

View ‘Food of Thailand’ Photography

Throughout my adult life I have strived for change and trying different things. I hate doing the same thing twice or going to the same place twice – I’d rather have a bikini wax than do something that I’ve already done…been there…done that. However – I have a few weird exceptions to the ‘must have change’ rule – foods. I’m not talking all foods, however every so often something I ate clicks my brain into ‘repeat mode’ and I can’t get enough of it. I had a couple of things in NYC that I was in a rut with – the Signature Salad from Cosi and the Chicken Parm from Vinnies…over and over – they never disappointed (and I miss them both!). In Thailand it was Spicy Papaya Salad that was my ‘can’t get enough of it’ food. We made it at cooking school and I was hooked! Every day Emily and I would order some. The best thing is that you could get it off the street at any vendor! I would get braver and braver with the spiciness factor when ordering. There was something very addicting about the spices in Thailand. I normally don’t love spicy food – but in Thailand – I found myself craving it! In Thailand, there are different levels of spiciness in which food is made. There’s food made for Caucasians and then there’s Thai food. The food made for Caucasians have the same names as the Thai food, but it’s missing one thing – the true Thai spice. Sure – you can order curry and it will even say on the menu that it’s spicy, and it will even taste rather spicy to our bland palettes. You will be completely satisfied thinking that you are eating real Thai food…but you aren’t. They’ve really left out about 75% of the spice/chillis that they put in curry for Thai people. The kind of spice that clears your sinuses in mere seconds (they should put chillis in Sudafed – it would be much more effective). It leaves your lips and tongue numb and it leaves your stomach in a knotty, nauseous mess a few hours after eating. This is real Thai food. At restaurants they call this Thai Spicy, if you want this intoxicating authentic experience – you order your curry ‘Thai spicy’ and know that you are getting authentic Thai food. However – one major warning…bring your own napkins.

Photo: Me and my tiny napkin I have to refer back to a Seinfeld episode on this…Can you Spare a Square. In Seinfeld they were talking about toilet paper – however in Thailand – I’m talking about a napkin. Thailand has this weird mix – the spiciest food, and the smallest napkins…this is not a good combination! The little stack of paper napkins would be on each dinner table…but when you went to pull them out to try to plug up your gushing sinuses, you realized that they were no bigger than a square of toilet paper AND they were one ply! I couldn’t understand this…were they so budget conscience that they didn’t want people wasting them? Did Thai people have some way of eating without needing to use a napkin? It baffled both Emily and I for weeks. We would eat our food Thai spicy and have a little mountain of crumpled up napkins at our table…it was kind of embarrassing…but better than letting our sinuses drip all over our food!

Emily and I were lucky – we were introduced to the concept of Thai Spicy on our Hill Tribe Trek with our guide Hay. He was so excited to cook for us because we were willing to try anything and we said that we wanted to eat like the locals eat. After the Hill Tribe Trek – we were no longer satisfied with eating at tourist places – we were on a quest – a quest for the real Thai food. However – there were a few problems with this quest – it meant that we needed to bring our own napkins, and we needed stomachs of teflon! We knew that the real authentic food was at the night markets, the vendors cooking food on the streets – but all ‘western’ tour guides tend to steer you away from these places. They serve raw vegetables, they wash the veggies in their local water, they have questionable health standards…yadda, yadda, yadda. Emily was blessed with a teflon stomach already, she would be just fine. I felt that over my last 4 months of travel, my stomach was slowly being trained. Trained to fight off evil bacteria that our normal US standards would frown upon. At least I told myself this knowing that what I was really doing was playing Russian Roulette with my intestines. However my feeling is that if you want to experience a different culture, then you have to eat the food.

With this new food mission, Emily and I left Chiang Mai and headed towards Pai. We decided to take a bus to Pai as our Lonely Planet said that it was the way to get to there. Since we hadn’t gotten any pre-arranged tickets, we decided to head down to the bus station in the morning and try to catch a local bus for the 4 hr. drive to Pai. However – as usual when traveling – getting there is never easy. We got a bus ticket for 70 Baht…about $2US…no air conditioning…joy. We did get 2 of the last 4 tickets – hurrah! In all of my travels to date – this was the most authentic overland travel I had done. A local bus to Pai…what an experience. footspace Photo: Foot space on the bus

We were crammed into the bus like sardines with the locals…literally there was no room to even put my feet. Luckily were were in the front seats so that gave us a little more knee space, however that also meant that my feat were propped up on the radiator fluid bottle. They even let people sit in the front window on top of the engine cover (inside). It reminded me of a packed subway that you crowded into – yet it wasn’t a 15 minute ride…it was a 4 hr. ride. Pai is in the mountains – so we were told that they road there was very curvy – Dramamine to the rescue! At times – I honestly didn’t think that the bus would make it up the hill…the driver would downshift into first gear and we would crawl up the hills – I could have walked faster…I’m not joking. At least the Dramamine made me drowsy – so I was in this nap like state the whole time. Emily actually fell asleep and nearly fell out of her chair into the isle (where people were sitting) when we went around one of the many hairpin turns! It was quite the ride. Of course we did find out that many people pay $200 baht and simply take a minivan with air conditioning to Pai in a mere 3 hrs..the Lonely Planet let us down on this one…but that’s ok – we had the ride of a lifetime!

Utopai is what many people called this town…which was pretty accurate. It was beatnik and full of coffee shops, little galleries, live music, bars, Thai tourists, and a night market (I could use a papaya salad after that bus ride!) It was Thailand’s version of the East Village in NYC. I loved the fact that there were so many tourists here – mainly because they were mainly Thai young people. There were very few Caucasians and everyones English was a bit choppy which finally forced me to learn ‘hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Thai. The staples of any language! There were so many things I liked about this town – one was the prices. A typical menu of prices in Pai:

Cottage with hot shower – $10
Bottle of water – $.30
Beer $1
1 hour massage $5
Load of laundry – $1
Dinner and drinks for two – $7

pancake Photo: Pancake Lady at night market
I honestly never wanted to leave Pai! We did end up staying an extra day in there because the white water rafting that we had planned to do was not really in season – not enough water. So instead of trying to float down a shallow river for 2 days – we decided to hang out in budget utopai. I would go running in the early mornings and people would look at me as if I was crazy – or sometimes they would cheer me on by clapping as I went by! I would write during the day and work on photography – it actually felt like a vacation of sorts! Every night we would go out and try new food – sometimes in restaurants, but more often than not – on the streets. I was moving one step closer to a teflon stomach. I was still more timid than Emily – but between us we would try many new things – including our old favorite – papaya salad. We would take our little one-ply napkins and wander down the street looking for new food blowing our noses like wimpy foreigners.





Photo: Noodles at the night market
We decided to head to Mai Hong Son next – a little town close to the border of Burma. Honestly the main reason why we went there was because we had booked a plane tickets out of there to get to Bangkok – so we went down to the local bus station and tried to figure out the best way to make the 4 hour ride to Mae Hong Son. This time we had wised up…we asked about a mini-van…sure enough – for $200 Baht we could get a air conditioned minivan to take us there…luxury! We got a little room at Friend House that literally had a mattress on the floor and a window…ok – it’s not the best – but it was only one night and it was clean…AND it was 150 Baht ($5 US). The fact that I was excited to sleep on a mattress on the floor with an outdoor toilet for $5 is a bit disturbing to me…I think I’m turning into my parents. However – there is something intoxicating about getting a good deal…and this sure was it! We went looking around the town and a couple of young girls came up to us giggling – and asked in their best broken English if they could interview us for a school assignment. We had to answer all kinds of questions about where we were from, what our nickname was (I’ll leave that a secret), why we came to Mae Hong Son, what our favorite Thai food was (ok – that was a no brainer), and then they had to take a picture of us. So it’s fun to think that in some classroom in Mae Hong Son kids are discussing Sherry Ott from New York City…ha! We then stumbled across the Mae Hong Son night market…an eating extravaganza!!! This market was set by the lake in the center of town and it was truly amazing. We just walked by stand after stand in awe of this yummy looking food. Most of the time we were wondering what it was…and trying to remember what stalls we wanted to come back to! meatballs They had little short tables set up on the grass along the lake that you could sit and eat at. We found someone that spoke some English and asked them about some of the food – but mainly we just tried what looked good to us – and of course we had papaya salad…the spiciest yet! I had been eying the meatball skewers back in Pai – and I finally decided to try them here. I asked for the chicken ones – yet I really have no idea if he understood me – so who knows what I ate. He asked me if I wanted sauce…’sure…I’ll take the sauce’. Of course the sauce was Thai spicy…next I needed a beer and a mound of napkins! It was probably the best food Emily and I had at a night market – we had a wonderful night – and used about 100 single-ply napkins! The next morning we got up and visited a local temple on the hill. It was a foggy morning which made for great photography of the white temple. We even met some tourists there that insisted on us getting a picture with them and their temple offerings.
Photo: Temple at dusk



Our next major stop on the food tour was Kanchanaburi which was in central/west Thailand. It is most famous for the Bridge over the River Kwai. Of course I had never seen the movie, but was eager to learn more about it. We arrived in Kanchanburi by bus – another long ride but with AC and plenty of bugs. We walked around the town and found some spicy dinner, then found a great bar that was showing outdoor movies on a big screen! We watched Narnia under the stars that night! We loved it so much we met the owner of the bar and he let us pick out the movies for the next night. The next day we rented little bikes with big baskets and biked all over Kanchanaburi to see the World War II Cemetery, the Railway museum and the bridge itself. I’m certainly no history expert…in fact I’m probably below normal when it comes to my knowledge of WWII. However what little I did retain about it, it was mainly about the European battles, and dealings – not the Asian history about WWII. grave I was captivated by this little town and the history there. The bridge was just one part of a much larger story about the railway that was built between Thailand and Burma by WWII POW’s. It was fascinating and sobering. The museum there was top notch – very educational, and not to be missed. Emily and I both were blown away by what we learned and we both had a big knot in our stomachs after seeing the pictures and hearing the stories and visiting the cemetery. I think the whole experience took us by surprise – we learned a lot that day. Cycling back from the bridge, we were ready for lunch. I let Emily pick the lunch spot as she had been eying many places as we biked to the bridge. She chose one of the road side ‘restaurants’ that simply had pots of food out front and a few seats inside away from the sun. I can safely say that we were the only tourists that stopped there that whole week. The ladies warned us a few times about the fact that it was spicy – but we barged ahead. We left our customary stack of napkins, and lost the feeling in our lips.



Later that afternoon we embarked on an adventure that was highly recommended by one of Emily’s friends. We went to see and pet live tigers at a temple run by monks. See…this would intrigue you too – right? We took off in a little truck taxi with about 8 other people…crammed in the back of a truck for 40 minutes wasn’t the best – but to pet live tigers…well – I could put up with anything! We got there and realized that Emily was wearing the wrong color…red. Apparently the tigers don’t like red (or maybe they like it too much…who knows), so they gave her a white shirt to wear and off we went. We bought our tickets and on the back of the ticket there was a disclaimer that we had to sign…the basic – “you are going to be seeing live tigers which is inherently dangerous. We take no responsibility for your safety”. Now – this may not seem unusual to you as in the US we would expect to sign a waiver of sorts when doing something dangerous. The weird thing about this was that in my 4 months of traveling and dangerous things that I’ve done – this was the first place that actually had a waiver. It kind of freaked me out! I actually had to stop and think for a second…damn…this could be dangerous. For a brief second – thoughts of Siegfried and Roy came to mind…tigers do attack – however, you only live once…so in we went! me tiger
Sure enough – there were about 10 big tigers in a canyon manned by monks and volunteers of sorts. I honestly didn’t really understand why the monks had these tigers, but I was certainly excited to pet them. We got in line and realized that this tiger petting was a fine oiled, deadly machine. They made you take off any sunglasses, purse, or hat that you were wearing – damn these tigers were finicky. You would get two volunteers assigned to you, one that took your camera from you to take pictures, and one that took your hand, held it and led you around to the tigers. They would not say anything to you, just hold your hand – it was all very creepy. They would sit you down behind a tiger and put your hand on the tiger’s back, soon the paparazzi would start to take a bunch of photos of you and the tiger. The guide would take your hand again and lead you to another tiger….more paparazzi, and this continues for about 4 tigers before they took you back to the line and gave you your camera back. You never exchanged any words with the person – it was really strange. but – I got my pictures…and that’s what I risked life and limb for…the perfect shot!

That night Emily and I went to the night market in Kanchanabur for some papaya salad and meatballs – and any new delights that we could find. There we came across something that we had never seen at any night market before…insects. I’m not talking about the ones flying around…but I’m talking about ones to eat! bugs Photo: The dinner bugs…tastey
As I peered into a pile of fried grasshoppers, locusts, and worms – I realized – I had met my limit. I couldn’t eat the bugs. There would never be enough napkins in this market for me if I ate a bug. However – Emily did not disappoint….she kept staring at them, going by the stand over and over, finally hovering by the stand. I finally just said…”Go ahead – you know you want to try it…just do it”. There were many people coming up to the stand getting a whole bag of mixed bugs for dinner – however Emily just wanted to try one. We gave the lady 1 Baht and she gave Emily a Locust looking bug – about 3 inches long. I readied the camera and she bit…chewed for a bit – and said that it was ok. However – she wasn’t ready to get a bag for dinner! We got our other food, sat on a curb and ate our spicy food with our little napkin – proud of ourselves for being the only Caucasians at the market! We ended the night with wine, ice cream, cookie crisp cereal and a outdoor movie at the bar. What a great town!

Our whirlwind eating tour was coming to an end. We were so proud of ourselves for trying everything, eating all of the places the guidebooks tell you not to eat, and loving every minutes of it. I wanted to educate everyone on the fact that sometimes you need to ignore the guidebook advice and just do what feels right. Try new things….if you are in Thailand – try the papaya salad – Thai spicy! But most importantly…we finally learned why you only get a little one-ply napkin in Thailand. We were told that the Thai people feel that it’s distasteful to wipe your face with a napkin and then put it back in your lap to use again. In essence – you are reusing a dirty napkin that way. They believe that napkins are for a one time use – and you can use how ever many you want! So – don’t be afraid to sit at your table in Thailand piling up a stack of napkins the size of Kilimanjaro…it’s customary! Happy Eating!
Photo: Emily at one with her tiny napkin!

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