Monday, May 26, 2014

From Opium to Oolong: A Day Trip to Doi Mae Salong

The geometry of this region was just stunning.

The view from the Phra Boromathat chedi devoted to the Queen Mother.
As part of the weekly schedule at the Friendly Farm near Chiang Rai, we would work a brief morning shift on Saturdays and then had the opportunity to accompany them to the city for the late afternoon and evening, at the end of which we would meet up and ride back home. We had Sundays off.

One week, having read of the nearby historic town of Mae Salong—where some Kuomintang from China hid out following the 1949 revolution, and where one of the king’s Royal Projects has transitioned the mountain slopes’ agricultural production from opium poppy to tea and other legal cash crops, and where there’s a wat—we decided to check it out.

Having spent Saturday night in Chiang Rai so that we could rent a motorcycle and zoom up the mountain Sunday morning, we commenced our zoom: Step driving, Pil clinging with both hands to the seat-bar behind him. It was a long, buttbone-battering trip. Our poor little motorcycle huffed and puffed its way up a steep grade, and more than once I, at least, thought we were going to have to push it. We coasted on truly the ghost of fumes into a little village high on the mountain and successfully filled up the tank. “Mae Salong?” we asked, pointing at the ground where we were standing. They shook their heads and pointed farther up the mountain. Puttputtputtputtputtputt-puttputtputt...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Horses and Puppies and Roosters, Chiang Rai!

Who would have thought that I would go to Thailand to train horses? I had a conniption when I first found this farm listed on WWOOF: five horses?! I had to go. I made us go. So we went.

Appaloosa Stables, subdivision Friendly Farm LLC, is run by Hans and Aye, who have lived in Chiang Rai for nearly twenty years. They started out running a guesthouse, but Aye's Thai restaurant was so much more popular that they stopped letting people sleep there and just called it Aye's. Then Hans opened an Italian place, but expats kept storming the counter with requests for this many olives or that many slices of cheese that there's now a deli shop around back. That's three restaurants, and counting. One of the lovely perks of this arrangement was that we ate delicious leftover restaurant food (hang leh three times a week, mmm) and every Saturday headed out into town for a meal on the house and a stroll through the weekly Walking Street, which is the Thai equivalent of the mall. Everyone hangs out at the mall on a Saturday night.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Spa Days in Vieng Thong

We took a bus west from Sam Neua, on our journey out of Laos. The first stopover was Vieng Thong, where we took our first shower in five days. Yes, it had been too cold to shower.

Vieng Thong has this hot spring, and it was a miracle after the frigid north. All we really did was flop around in the warm water and soft-boil our eggs in the hot springs, which emitted sulfurous burps every once in an odd while. Might have been because everyone and their three adorable sons cooked their eggs in the spring. Those three boys, no older then ten, came jumping over the rocks with a plastic bag of eggs on a stick, which they stuck into the water entire and waited for impatiently, asking every once in a while with a poke whether it was done yet (no). I asked them whether they came every day to cook, and they said yes; their mother followed not far behind with an enormous basket of greens and long green eggplants. It must be such a blessing to have a free source of cooking heat.

The view from the bridge.

Look at how much algae grows here! And how green!
The road to the hot spring is dotted with open-air shacks on one side, selling papaya salads and roasted tidbits, and both times we passed it we were invited to have a beer with a group of young Laos. (Frankly everyone was much nicer in Vieng Thong than in frigid Sam Neua, with the exception of our favorite Jeep-driving furniture dealer, and I think it has to do with the year-round presence of warm water. It made me so much happier to be warmer, and I was just there for two days). The second time, this young man invited us to play petang, the local spin on pétanque, with his sister. We'd played the night before, at a beer place that definitely didn't sell food but had four petang courts. We suspected it was a drinking game. I would like to remind you that this is a game where you throw lead balls underhand.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Sound Must Have Been Deafening: Nine Years in the Vieng Xai Caves

Our next stop in chilly northern Laos was the small lakeside town of Vieng Xai, a historically decisive place for the future of Laos during the Vietnam War. Definitely one of my very favorite places from our time in the country. It’s something about the tall mist-shrouded cliffs jutting up around the town, the silence, the gray sky, the two small lakes, and the earnest people we met.

First of all, we caught a morning ride on a totally sardine-packed bus going from Sam Neua to another destination, and just got off partway at Vieng Xai. Both of us stood in the aisle. In the space between our jolly driver and the front door alone, at least ten people stood, crouched, and perched, and there was probably at least one chicken, somewhere. As we peeled out of the station, said jolly driver clicked on some sweet Lao jams, thumping his hand against the wheel and singing along. It was great. When it was our stop, the entire bus group collectively yelled for the driver to stop and let us out. We walked with our packs the kilometer or so from where the bus dropped us into town.

What we looked like, in the bus. Note the Step-sized bag of chilies.

That afternoon we toured a network of caves in the surrounding cliffs. For nine years (1964-1973), while the US carpet bombed the country, hundreds (eventually) of Lao civilians not only lived inside these caves alongside the leaders of the Pathet Lao—the Lao Party or Lao Nation—but in fact fought off the planes with antiaircraft guns and founded the current communist government. Nine years.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Phonsavanh: A Study in Dust

We came to the town of Phonsavan as a staging point for our visit to the nearby Plain of Jars. Going there, you wouldn't expect such archaeological wonder to be tucked around the corner. The city itself isn't really a city, either; hardly any buildings are within twenty feet of one another and all the streets are twice as wide as normal to allow for massive freight trucks to drive through from China and Vietnam. The hotels are all Soviet block style with Chinese names and abundant neon, nearly identical down to the cavernous reception areas, awkwardly arranged with masses of heavy, carved, varnished wood furniture; like they expected a whole crowd of businessmen to storm in and have a meeting within sight of the door. At our hotel, we had an entire floor, and a very long hallway, all to ourselves, in an inexplicable corner room with no windows. Just past the lobby, an alarmingly large pile of UXO was inside a closet-sized chain-link cage that didn’t even have a solid roof.

Bomb as planter.

Even communists have gods.
There aren't enough people to fit the outsized streets and buildings of the city, that's what makes it feels so desolate. Not even the restaurants felt inhabited. We were looking for nok aen dawng, fermented swallows, and sought out one hotel restaurant where we'd read that it could be found. The dining room turned out to be tightly packed with the same heavy, shiny teak furniture as every other hotel in Phonsavanh, but it was devoid of people, besides the receptionist. The walls were the kind you find in corporate offices: tinted glass and cheap metal rims. We had missed breakfast; the cook had gone home. Nevertheless, we had a cup of (bitter) coffee and spent some time writing. Hardly any daylight made it from the lobby through to the dining room. The décor was like a strange approximation of an Americana lodge (or diner?), with license plates, animal heads, and the ubiquitous forty-year-old literal bombshells all hung neatly on the walls. We were the only customers for the hour and half we were there.

We were there in the high season, ostensibly when the most people are visiting Laos, but it felt like there was hardly anyone there (Lao, farang, or otherwise). Incongruous fields of rice and cattle divided the northern and southern halves of the town. Next to where we rented our motorbike was a run-down snooker hall with the same tinted glass office walls, packed with boisterous young Lao men drinking beer. When you add the red dust blown up from the unsealed roads, it felt, on the whole, like a Chinese-Western frontier town, the massive faux-marble floors of the all but vacant hotels towering fifteen floors above anything else. It was surreal.

Neon, weird building spacing, and massive Chinese hotel: classic Phonsavanh.

A little Soviet kitsch never hurt anyone, except for the economy.

The eerie hotel hallway.

Fermented swallows at the market.

Unfortunate slogan campaign by Pepsi in a country ravaged by UXO.

Very large house.

Recycling in action.

Donuts at the market, the only place that was ever busy.

How come communist propaganda always looks the same?

We didn't stay here, alas.

Bomb as nursery maid.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

It Must Have Been Quite the Party

The Plain of Jars ranks alongside Stonehenge in the annals of how the hell did they do that without cranes? Scattered over the hills and vales of the central Xieng Khouang plateau, the Plain of Jars is something of a misnomer, as there are 90 individual sites. The megalithic jars come in ones and threes and hundreds; upright, sideways, tilted, or with giant holes in the middle. Some have lids, others' lids have fallen off, but remarkably few were blown apart during the US bombing of Laos. Only a handful of sites have been cleared of UXO, though, and these only in 2004 and 2007.

We stayed in Phonsavanh, a provincial capital close to three major jar sites. We rented a 125cc Chinese motorbike and coated our lungs and clothes with red dust to get to the jar sites. The road looked more like a construction zone than anything else most of them time, and sometimes we had to wait for the cows to pass.

The visitors' center at the bottom of Jars Site 1 was only erected in August 2013; it's a shack with vinyl posters of information in English about the history of the sites and ongoing efforts to make them safe for visitors.We visited sites 1, 2, and 3, and each of them was different: 2 was at the top of a hill overlooking swathes of farmland; 3 was in the midst of a forest grove with trees shooting through the cracking jars; and 1 comprised hundreds of jars wrapped around the fields and hillocks surrounding a large cave.

There are simply some places that feel sacred, and this is one.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The World's Most Heavily Bombed Nation

Before we can move from Luang Prabang to our next destination, the Plain of Jars, we need to talk about bombs. During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped over 2 million tons of explosive ordinance over Laos in 580,000 bombing missions, in an attempt to disrupt the North Vietnamese supply train. That's the equivalent of one planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. During the war, American bombs killed 30,000 civilians, blew up countless valuable livestock, and left thousands of villages burning. It's estimated that 30% of these bombs failed to detonate, leaving the country littered with unexploded ordinance (UXO). The worst of these are cluster munitions, which contain hundreds of individual bomblets or bombies, which are candy-colored tennis balls of lethal explosive. They look a lot like toys, and there are about 80 million of them littering the Lao countryside. This is what a cluster bomb does when it explodes:

Since the war ended, 20,000 people have been maimed or killed because of UXO explosions. Forty percent of them are children. That's about 300 people every year, almost every day. Nearly a third of the country is contaminated by UXO: all 17 of the country's provinces, a quarter of all villages, 41 of the 47 poorest districts, and a quarter of usable farmland. Subsistence farmers have no choice but to risk their limbs or their lives on their farmland, because the other option is starving. Should something happen, that person's family must somehow survive. Sometimes that means sending children to work instead of to school, furthering a cycle of poverty that has kept Laos among the 20 poorest countries in the world.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

"Maybe...idiom": Evenings at Big Brother Mouse

Everyone wants to learn English. For better or worse, our native language—or, in Step’s case, one of her native languages—is in high demand worldwide.

Both of us love language, of course, and we’re nerds about it. Yet it does not escape us that the enthusiasm for practicing English that we’ve encountered among people in Southeast Asia is not quite about the innate beauty of the language. It’s about financial security. You can make much more money doing business in English (i.e. with foreigners) than if you do business only in Southeast Asian languages, or even in Mandarin. In the Beijing airport, for example, which we passed through on our way from San Francisco to Bangkok, all major signs are in two languages only: Mandarin and English. For now, those of us who happen to be native speakers of English have a substantial advantage when it comes to the international marketplace.

At Mae Mut Garden, as we’ve mentioned, we volunteered to assist the English teachers at the local Thai school. Each of us went, individually, on a total of maybe five or six different days over a three- or four-week span. There, assisting a young full-time volunteer teacher from the UK, we worked entirely in English with students aged nine to fourteen on a range of enigmas including the names of shapes, prepositions of space and time, and questions.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ock Pop Tok!

Different stages of the Hmong New Year skirt.

I knew very little about weaving before coming to Laos. I still don’t know how to weave, but at least after our hours-long visit to Ock Pop Tock’s workshop in Luang Prabang, I know how it’s done, and just how complicated the doing is.

In almost every village in Southeast Asia, there are women weaving traditional textiles in dozens of ways. Some use cube-shaped bamboo looms, others use backbrace looms like the one we saw in the Karen village. In many villages, husbands build their wives custom-sized looms, combs, shuttles, and beaters. Brightly patterned cotton and silk scarves are sold at every other market stall in Southeast Asia, and half claim to be handmade. Whether they actually are, or whether the weaver was paid a living wage, are both gnarly questions.

Ms Yi is one of the young artisans inventing new and wildly complicated patterns for her weaving. Every part of the pattern is reflected in the off-white threads attached to the loom; it takes hours to attach.

Ock Pop Tok, which means “East and West” in Lao, sells only hand-crafted products with natural dyes, made by women paid a living wage, which is four times as much as they might be paid from another shop. The fair-trade company also develops relationships with dozens of individual villages all over Laos, and in conjunction with NGO partners, is one of the reasons why textile production lives on in these remote places.

This means that the prices are more akin to those you’d see in the West, but I’d much rather spend more knowing that I wasn’t supporting sweatshop labor in Cambodia. Most entrancingly, the workshop is open to the public, and there are free tours every day. It was one of the best days we spent in the entire country, and I learned a lot. More learning after the cut!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Who Are All These People?

To bridge our transition from Thailand to Laos, it’s worth discussing our attempts to learn about the distinctions between nationality, ethnicity, and clan in southeast Asia—distinctions which are quite alive in 2014. We’ve written already about our weekend in a Karen village, and the inhabitants of that village, with whom we toiled and ate lunch for six weeks. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Many self-identifying ethnic groups coexist in Thailand and Laos, including the Karen, Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Khmu, Tai Dam, Tai Lü, Mien (also called Yao), and others. These communities exist across political borders and have spent the last few hundred years migrating to escape political oppression. In this blog, often we’ll say, “a friendly Thai man,” or “a teenage Lao girl”—but in reality many of these people might correct us, saying, “I am Akha”, “I am Hmong”, etc.

What we do know about this subject, in addition to what we’ve absorbed from talking to individuals, we’ve learned largely from several nonprofit educational centers.

Back when we were in Chiang Mai, we made a trip to the Tribal Museum, founded in 2002 and built north of the city, in the middle of a lake. A smiling Thai woman greeted us in English and asked us to change from our outdoor shoes into indoor flip-flops provided by the museum. In the stairwell up to the first exhibit, an animatronic mannequin of a young woman in Akha dress welcomed us with limbs that moved on their own, accompanied by flashing background lights and a recorded speech in Akha. Winding our way through a series of rooms, we examined generous displays of the distinctive clothing, musical instruments, tools, houses, baskets, and so on of eight ethnic minorities currently living in northern Thailand. We saw handmade crossbows, knives, and mousetraps (like the freshly made Karen one in Baan Hoi Hoi), some truly impressive weaving and stitching work, a giant calendar comparing typical village work and celebrations for each ethnic group during any given month, and even a replica of the sacred door-sized gateway that guards the threshold of every Akha village.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Layers of Luang Prabang

We spent eight nights in Luang Prabang, a very tourist-friendly colonial town situated at the intersection of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Here are Steppil's impressions of the setting.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Getting to Laos: How to Avoid the Engine Room

Hi, faithful readers. Because we have to leave Thailand periodically according to our visas, the plan all along has been to travel as tourists in neighboring SE Asian countries between our different WWOOF Thailand locations. In the chronology of the blog, therefore, here begins our three-week trip to Laos. (Although really these events occurred at the beginning of February.)

To get there, we took a two-day ride on a “slow boat” eastward along the lush Mekong River—from the Lao-Thai border to the central town of Luang Prabang. Step had read about the slow boat ride in blogs online, and Pilncertainly had no objection. It’s not necessary, of course, and it’s a little more expensive than taking ground transport, which also stretches to two days. Ours was not a luxury cruise, though if you have hundreds of dollars to spare, you can read about that option in the Wall Street Journal.

The slow boat is, of course, cheaper, non-life-threatening, and substantially less destructive to the ecosystem than the whining, thrashing speedboat in which you can tear through the otherwise tranquil Mekong. Please don’t take the speedboat. You might die.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Finding an Old City in the New City

Exactly thirty years ago, in 1984, a lost city was rediscovered beneath Chiang Mai. It all began when some residents in a suburb of Chiang Mai found some ancient Buddhist tablets next to a temple. Abandoned to floodwaters and hundreds of years of silt, Wiang Kum Kam was held to be a myth….until archaeologists realized people were living right on top of it!!!

In 1286, King Mangrai built Wiang Kum Kam on the banks of the Ping River, to be to capital of his new Lanna Kingdom. But the rainy season was not kind to Wiang Kum Kam, and just ten years later, the King relocated the capital to the opposite shore, and the new city of Chiang Mai—which, hey hey, means new city in Thai—superseded its older brother.

Pil and I scooted out there one day in January during the dry season to avoid the flood. The ruins of Wiang Kum Kam are now (metaphorically) buried in the heart of a quiet suburb to the southeast. There are landmark signs pointing you in the right direction, but we got a little lost anyway, and made our way into the first complex of ruins via the backdoor of a temple (at the insistence of a monk). We had read that you can hire a horse carriage for a palfry penny, but there were none to be seen—just a few quiet noodle stalls also selling knick-knacks, and a lone group of Thai tourists.

Friday, March 7, 2014

On Doi Suthep; or: Gold and Elephants

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, or Doi Suthep for short, is one of the most hallowed places in Northern Thailand, built in 1383 under the auspices of King Keu Naone and his elephant. As the story goes, said elephant was carrying a sacred Buddha relic on his back, and the royal party was following behind, with the intention of building a temple on the spot where the holy elephant stopped. Well, he made it all the way to the top of the mountain, then keeled over and died. Thus the temple was built right there. It's less than an hour away by motorbike, and those switchback turns are fun!

Another fun fact: when I tell people my name is Step, it is pronounced a lot more like Suthep than the part of a staircase, so the mountain and I feel much affinity towards one another.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wats the Big Deal?

Dog days at the dog wat, Wat Ketkaram.

There are a few things that Southeast Asia has in spades: chilies, bananas, stray dogs, smiles, and temples. In the past three months, we’ve stepped barefoot into more Buddhist temples than we have in our entire lives. In fact, we went from zero to fifty-odd in the span of a few weeks, and we knew virtually nothing about temple architecture or practice before we arrived. We had a lot of learning to do, and luckily we were able to participate in a full moon ceremony in Mae Mut to see what active temple life is like. But there are still hundreds of details and intricacies—the symbolism of certain architectural flourishes, mysterious numbered boxes stuffed with paper like mail slots, the meaning behind poured water—that we’re still trying to unpack. Thus we preface this post with the warning that we are not experts, have probably gotten things wrong, and could have learned a lot more had we not been petting so many temple dogs.

Each temple has its own flavor, and sometimes even its own zodiac animal theme, but common to all of them is the sense of it being a living space. What felt really special to us about all of these wats was how there were so many people there simply to worship. Even at Doi Suthep, which is crawling with multinational tourist bugs, including ourselves, there were Chiang Mai University graduates in their robes, walking circles around the chedi for merit, giggling girls shaking out fortune sticks, people bowing their heads for a monk's blessing. Even at Chiang Mai’s so-called Silver Wat, which is lit up in rotating neons at night, there are monks engaging in nightly “monk chats,” where visitors are invited to chat with disciples about the way of the Buddha. We sat in on one of these and found it interesting, if a little difficult due to language difficulties. (This was before we learned any decent amount of Thai.)

The ordination hall at Wat Ket

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

How to Eat Chiang Mai Noodles

Beef khao soi with all the fixins at Khao Soi Samerjai

The second time around, Phil and I were in Chiang Mai for six nights, six mornings, and nine breakfast bowls of khao soi. It would have been ten, except Phil felt ill one morning and, in a true demonstration of his illness, did not partake of the curative Chiang Mai Noodles. I did not waver in my devotion, and had the same (same but different!) breakfast five days in a row, at three different noodle shops, all of which were a convenient scoot-distance from our guesthouse. Although khao soi is typically a lunch or afternoon food, there were no lack of locals in any of the restaurants when we went (usually around 9 am), and it was most convenient for our long-distance itineraries to Lamphun and Wiang Kum Kam. We had to fit in our noodle fix sometime.

Monday, February 17, 2014

We Need to Talk About Chiang Mai

I should preface this post by saying that before this, I had never been to any city in Asia. Not even Bangkok, unless you count a harrowing taxi ride from the airport to the train station, where we just waited for six hours. (We’ll be taking the train back down to Bangkok at the beginning of April, so you can look forward to a funny comparison between third and first class travel. I salivate at the thought of a sleeper car.)

I can’t even say with honesty that I have been to any Asian city besides Chiang Mai, because nowhere in Laos that we have been feels anything like a city. Luang Prabang is an overgrown town with an outsize tourist population, a million wats, and European-style cafés that don’t exist anywhere else in Laos except Vientiane (where we haven’t been). The other provincial capitals we’ve visited, Sam Neua and Phonsavanh, were bewilderingly odd: like a cross between Soviet realism and a frontier town movie set, plus enough dust to coat an entire nation, not to mention my lungs and all of my clothes.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. According to this blog, we haven’t even gotten to Laos yet. Let’s get back to Thailand.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Fruits on the Farm

Although we left Mae Mut Garden a few weeks ago, we still reminisce about the fresh fruit that we had every day, even during the dry season. Thailand experiences three sort-of seasons: the dry and cool (Nov-Feb), the dry and hot (Mar-May), and the wet (June-Oct). Apparently it's so abysmal in April that everyone tries to leave! Hence we've planned our trip to Burma during that period.

The dry season is the only time that watering is necessary, and even then, it's important to neglect the fruit trees a bit, because they need to feel dry in order to flower, and later bear fruit. But while we were there, plenty of fruits trees were flowering, ripening, or already giving us ready-made snacks (no pesky going to the supermarket). I took most of these photographs in one morning, with the exception of the pineapple photograph.

ทุเรียนเทศ | A new one to me, from South America, the soursop is a part of the custard apple family. Early research has shown that the leaves could have anti-cancer properties.

Friday, February 7, 2014

A Buddhist Full Moon Service

Just to keep you on your toes about the details of our lives, welcome to a bonus post (it’s shorter I promise) from the thus far ghostwriterly Pil.

Another of the illuminating and heartwarming community experiences from our time at Mae Mut Garden was the full moon service at the local temple, Wat Wimuttikaram. As we may or may not have mentioned at some earlier time (I am illiterate), there are a lot of wats everywhere we’ve been in Thailand so far. If they were not large walled estates containing several buildings, you’d basically be tripping over them. They are fascinating, beautiful places with many doors, and we’ll have more to say about them in future posts. The point, for now, is that Wimuttikaram is the wat nearest to the house of Marco, Nok, and Her Imperial Highness Serena.

The first we heard of the service was the day before, when Nok invited us. That night, after the Ruler of All had fallen asleep, Steppil + Nok assembled small plastic bags containing smaller packets of rice, noodles, and instant coffee. These bags, Nok explained in a low voice so as not to wake the Serena-monster, are gifts that serve a double purpose. They are a contribution toward our own nourishment in future reincarnations—but in this lifetime, they are also presented as a gift to the hungry poor of the village.

Every family also offers flowers, which are added to communal decorative platters and somehow look like hour-long arrangements, despite being the work of minutes. The pink ones on the right were ours.

Finding Nemo in a Karen Village

If some unspeakably cruel person were to hold me hostage and forced me to choose my top five experiences in Thailand thus far, I would think this person an exceedingly dull villain. It's hard to choose. I would talk about reaching the highest shrine in Thailand, the lights over the Ping River, the dogs of Mae Mut greeting me every morning with wagging tails, I would talk about my brush with the divine when I first slurped Chiang Mai noodles in Chiang Mai, and then I would then launch into the story of the weekend that Phil, Molly, and I spent in Baan Hoi Hoi, the Karen village nearest the farm.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

No Hinting. Stay on Trial.

At Mae Mut Garden, we typically work six days per week and take Sunday off. (Partly this is because the Karen staff, being Christian, take Sunday off anyway.) On our Sundays, we go out and see the surrounding area. The first two times, Step and I went out on a motor-scooter by ourselves, to chase those infamous waterfalls. Since then, we have been fortunate enough to go out with the whole family, including Pii Hom and her 14-year-old daughter, Nong Nam.

No hinting.
Stay on trial.
Don't write.
One of our recent such outings was to Mae Wang National Park—home of strange, amazing sandstone-like formations as well as many ambitious pebbles. Originally, weeks ago, we had been discussing the aforementioned Sundays-out-in-the-world plan after lunch. Marco disappeared into the house and brought out a glossy tri-fold brochure with beautiful photos of this place and much writing in Thai. “Where is this?” he asked one of the staff in Thai, pointing at the photo, and thus our adventure was born.

Fast forward. After breakfast and watering, we pile in the pickup truck. In the cab, we have Marco, Nok, Her Highness Serena, Pii Hom, and Bruno. In the bed, facing backwards and waving at two intrepid Thai children doing the same thing but standing up, we have Step, Molly (our super-co-volunteer—American, my age, superb company, former New Orleans mule driver and tour guide), and Pil. We just go where they take us, you know? As we rumble down the road, all four dogs sprint after us. We discuss the logistics of stealing one and bringing it to Burma. We do not. (Editor’s Note: We haven’t gone to Burma yet, so the possibility has not been ruled out, and also, it’s not stealing if every other day your host tells you to take every single dog except for Spaghetti.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Khao Tom Muu

The smell of fried garlic and steaming rice broth is what greets us on our way down to the farm house, three out of seven days. (On the other days, it’s porridge and bananas for three, and the day after we make bread, it’s toast and a plethora of jams). Khao tom means rice soup in Thai, and it’s one of the most simple, unglamorous things you could make: rice cooked in pork broth. It’s become one of my favorite things to wake up to, especially when it’s got a garden of cilantro and scallions on top.

On New Year’s Day, Nok’s best friend Nok1 fried garlic and onions to serve alongside, and made the broth using a pork bone instead of a bouillon cube. Ever since I’ve been utterly captivated, and this is absolutely one of those dishes that I’m going to keep making once we leave this continent.

Friday, January 17, 2014

An Interview with Two Village Elders

This morning, Phil and I spent three hours clearing around tree trunks, piling on cow shit, and then rearranging hoses. This afternoon, we played with colored pencils. “There are a lot of things that you can do that don’t involve a shovel,” Marco told us at the beginning of our stay here. So Phil has been working on a map of the watering system here, which is complex, and includes a spot on the map lovingly referred to as the Land of Five Valves, because all the trees there are on a drip-line—no hoses! I've been drawing a kind of welcome map of the property, so that nobody gets lost in a banana grove when they come to the farm for a visit.

Last week, we had an especially cool project, with Marco immediately suggested after we said that we were writers. (Mostly out of relief that he could begin having us write his blog posts for him). We interviewed two village elders, Ooey Khambao (age 84) and Ooey Jum Supaeng (age 77), and wrote up what the village was like when they were born and how it's changed. (Ooey is a Thai term for grandmother or elder that precedes their name.)1

So with Marco and Nok translating (and, of course, in turn fielding questions about Empress Baby Serena), we wrote a story that synthesizes their voices and their experiences. There's probably a little that we missed, but we tried to catch it all, and swear that we didn't make anything up, not even the tigers.

Two Village Elders

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Like a Ton of Bricks. Or A Pit.

Every day when we head back up to the house to shower, Phil and I are faced with an insurmountable number of bricks. The first day we were so impressed to learn that they were made by hand, and we were even more impressed later when we saw them in action, and realized that they were also made by foot. And now, we've made them ourselves!

Something like 2500 bricks are going into the addition to the farmhouse, which is being built now. It's been awesome to see the ground go from being shaded by an enormous banana tree, to being a square of cement, to being a skeletal brick frame, to reaching over our heads. The biggest lesson we have taken away from this: "Be very careful where you plant banana trees. They are a piece of work when you want to get them out."

Friday, January 3, 2014

I Ate All of the Bananas on Doi Pha Ngaem (ดอยผาแง่ม)

©2013 Stephanie Bastek

Happy New Year! To celebrate, the whole Mae Mut Garden Gang climbed up to the highest Buddhist shrine in Thailand, on Doi Pha Ngaem. The whole time we were hiking, I was deceived that this was Doi Inthanon, the most ultra prominent peak in Thailand, and even repeated multiple times in Thai, "We are hiking up Doi Inthanon, I am very tired!" but I guess I pronounced "Inthanon" with such mangled tones that it was perceived to be farang1 gibberish.