Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Bizarre Sculpture Park, Nong Khai

In March 2009, prior to crossing the border into Vientiane, Laos, a friend and I spent two nights in Nong Khai, a pleasant little town on the banks of the Mekong River. One of the attractions I wanted to visit there was Sala Keo Ku. This is one of many possible romanized spellings and seems to be more commonly spelled Sala Kaew Ku. However, I use the spelling written on the main pavilion complex of the park, a large, three storey building which houses the mummified remains of the chief architect of this mesmerizing  place, also known as Wat Khaek. The place is a surreal and bizarre statue or sculpture park a few kilometers outside the town itself.  

Although I am not Belgian, my European home base is Belgium, the land of the surrealists, Magritte, Delvaux and others. I enjoy surrealism and the Sala Keo Ku park is certainly a worthy contender for the Asian version of the top ten surreal  attractions. It is bizarre, and yet, enchanting, in a macabre, somewhat sinister way.       

The work was started by an interesting character called Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, a Lao national.  He was not a monk, but Luang Pu, a title traditionally reserved for monks, came to be applied to him.  He and his 'followers' (he seems to have been a bit of a cult leader) started building this park in 1978, having already built a similar park in neighboring Laos. The park consists of giant concrete sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu deities, towering up to 25 meters tall. My two favorites were the depiction of Buddha meditating under the protection of a seven-headed Naga snake, with each snake having an impressively long tongue, and a giant, unfinished brickwork sculpture of an enormous Buddha sculpture still missing his hands, which currently consist of steel wire supports around which the hands will, presumably, be built. Many of the sculptures are very amusing (look for the elephant wading through a pack of dogs).

Another fascinating part of the park is the Wheel of Life. This is an area surrounded by a  low, round wall, access to which is gained by going through the long, low-roofed 'mouth'.  Not easy for a middle aged European with bad knees, but easy for this young, short and supple Thai lady. 

The Wheel of Life consists of a group of sculptures representing the stages of life from the foetus, through childhood, adolescence, marriage, adultery(!), old age and death. The  Mut Mee guest house drew up this fascinating diagram of the  Wheel of Lifesculptures.
If you are in, or passing through Nong Khai, it would be a shame to miss this place because it is certainly worth an hour or two of your time.

Thai Connoisseur

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Longer Skytrains

This is good news: The BTS Skytrain is to take delivery of twelve new trains with, I gather, four carriages instead of three. I have often wondered why Skytrains only have three carriages when the platforms are clearly designed for much longer trains. The service really is full to capacity during peak hours, and, even in off peak it is often standing room only depending on where you get on.

I am a big fan of the Skytrain and use it as much as I can. I look forward to the day when all Skytrains will utilize all platform space.

Thai Connoisseur

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Your own Bangkok City Guide

A couple of days ago I read an article on TechCrunch about a newly released social travel planner described as a 'Killer domain for a Social Planner With Some Potential'.

As it says on their website:

  Of course, there are lots of websites and applications one can use to find out what to do when visiting a city, but Stay.com admittedly makes things very easy and quite fun for the 50 cities it currently features on the site.
All you need to is enter your destination city, e.g. Brussels, and up pops a list of activites, like museums you can visit or restaurants where you can get some decent food.
At the tap of a button, you can get a downloadable guide (PDF) of activities and venues along with a map, photos, addresses, opening hours and more. You can also customize those guides with items you select from a pre-populated list of venues, hotels, restaurants and attractions, and share your personalized guide with the world via Stay.com, Facebook and Twitter.
Likewise, you can discover custom guides for cities that other people have created before you.
Stay.com also handily integrates content from a range of travel information providers: TripAdvisor for ratings and reviews, and TopTable and OpenTable for easy restaurant reservations, just to name a few.
The startup promises much more is coming now that the service has launched in public beta form; on the roadmap we find user-added venues and places, third-party sharing widgets, full mobile integration, geo-location features, video guides and more. Stay.com promises the site will remain ad-free as the site grows in terms of functionality; the money it makes from hotel bookings from the main website should be enough to build a business, they reckon.
 Bangkok is one of the included cities. It looks good and I plan to use it. Let me know if you find this a helpful tool.
Thai Connoisseur

Bangkok skyscrapers

I have always been a fan of tall buildings. I have been lucky enough to have seen, up close and personal,  the wonderful skylines of Manhattan, Vancouver, Toronto, San Francisco, Sydney and Singapore, which are among my favorite 'skyline cities' of the world. Hong Kong, and some of the up and coming cities of mainland China, would also be on that list, but I have only seen fascinating pictures and have not had the opportunity to visit.  

Thailand, Bangkok, Lad Phrao, monsoon clouds moving over office buildings

How about Bangkok? Well, I hope I do not offend anyone by saying the skyline is not in the same league as the aforementioned cities, but, nonetheless, I always get a great thrill when I take a taxi from Suvarnabhumi airport and see the  tall buildings, even the ugly ones, come into view on the horizon. I know I am 'home'. There are some attractive skyscrapers (some may be called tall buildings rather than skyscrapers) dotted around the city.   My problem, when walking around the city, has always been my inability to identify by name the tall buildings I see.  The Baiyoke Sky Tower is  about the only building I have always been able to identify straight away. I came across this website called, appropriately enough, Bangkok Skyscrapers . It lists and photographs all the major tall buildings, with, in part, information such as height, number of floors, and ranking in terms of height. 

On my frequent walks around Lumpini Park I have often admired this building but did not know what it was  called.


 Now I know it is Q-House Lumpini, a luxury office building.

 On some of the entries, crucial information is left out and no deeper information about the building other than the photo and standard statistics are provided, but for a general overview of Bangkok buildings this is a useful reference.

Thai Connoisseur    

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fish Heads

In western Europe / North America, we are not so used to seeing our fish served at the table with the head still attached. In Thailand, and most of Asia, this is perfectly normal. I remember one of my first nights in Thailand, a few years back, I was at a riverside restaurant in Bangkok, and, naturally, fish was special of the day, which we ordered.  I do not remember what type of fish it was but it was served with the head still attached, small, wide, bulging eyes open. For just a minute or two I found this disconcerting, but then my Thai companion happily plucked a fork into the eye, pulled it out, and ate it. I laughed to myself, remembered I was in Thailand, and reasoned that if I had a problem seeing a fish head on my plate I should probably leave Thailand and never return. The fish itself was delicious.

A few years on I would now find it disconcerting if my fish was not served with head attached. Mind you, I still do not actually eat the fish head or the eyeballs, but the local soi cats are happy about that as they tend to be the beneficiaries.

This little fellow lives around the Sukhumvit Soi 6/8 passageway and was the happy recipient of my discarded fish head a few months ago.

Thai Connoisseur

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Chiang Mai - A lot of Thai cooking school

Cooking in Chiang Mai

On a warm, sunny Saturday in February 2008, my friend Tuk and I awoke early, and, mindful of the admonitions of our hosts-to-be for the day, skipped breakfast. We waited outside the entrance of our hotel, the Centara Duangtawan, and awaited our pick up. Soon, an old, funky, beat up looking, bright blue Volkswagen van, emblazoned with the logo 'A Lot of Thai', pulled into the hotel entrance. Yup, these were to be our hosts for the next 4 or 5 hours, Yui and Kwan of the 'A Lot of Thai' home cooking school.

A Lot of Thai Transport

We piled into the van, introduced ourselves to the three ladies already inside, and headed off to the home of Yui and Kwan, picking up a further two participants along the way. So, 6 females and one male (that would be me), representing 5 different nationalities between us (UK, Germany, Israel, US and Thailand) arrived at Yui and Kwan's unassuming, but pleasant home and workplace. This is not a gleaming, stainless steel, air conditioned, elaborately equipped kitchen, but the lack of those attributes adds to its charm and stamps upon it the authenticity of a true Thai cooking school. It is a semi-outdoor, roofed, but partially open kitchen area, adapted with individual work stations for eight people. It is clean and the work stations and cooking utensils are superb. The temperature was pleasant in February but I can imagine that the cooking area would get a tad uncomfortable in the much hotter months of March and April. However a well placed fan or two would cool things down.

Yui was a brilliant teacher, patient, clear, articulate, amusing and clearly knows her stuff. We made 6 dishes throughout the morning. What dishes you cook depend on the day of the week. This was Saturday so the first three dishes were the classic pad thai, tom yam kung (hot and sour prawn soup) and paw pia tawd (spring rolls). The latter I found difficult as I had trouble with the wrapping of the delicate spring roll wrapper and Yui had to show me again how to do it. As a consequence I was the last to get my spring rolls into the fryer for the quick one to two minutes frying.

After three dishes it was time for a bit of a break from the kitchen so we clambered back into the van for a trip to the local market. It was very much a Thai place with no other foreigners visible. Yui took us around and explained about the different types of food on sale there and what to look for when choosing produce. The sheer variety was mind boggling and to be honest I would not have been able to name most of the foodstuff on sale there, let again know what to actually do with it if I bought it! Eat it would be the logical answer, but how? My companion, Tuk, was not particularly excited by the market as she is Thai herself, and she has been around these places all her life. Now at this point you might think taking a Thai lady to cooking school is like taking snow to Canada. But she had told me she could not cook and, as she does not have a kitchen in her apartment (very common in Bangkok) and buys her food from street stalls I believed her. As it happened she seemed to be a natural on the course and was probably the best out of all of 7 of us. She was a little bit shy at being among 5 western ladies and, lacking confidence in her English skills (which really are quite good, though she does not recognize that), did not say much, but Yui made her feel very comfortable and the two had frequent exchanges in Thai and, on a few occasions, Yui did point to Tuk's work as a good example of how to do it (kudos to Tuk!)

After the market visit and a refreshing mango smoothie it was back to the house for part two. We cooked another three dishes, gang keow wan gai (green curry with chicken), gai pad med ma muang him ma paw (stir fried chicken with cashew nut) and kao nieuw ma muang (sweet sticky rice with mango).

In between each dish we would of course sit down and sample what we had cooked so by the final meal of sticky rice and mangoes we were all pretty full.

There are many cooking schools to choose from in Chiang Mai, but for a small, friendly, but professional place, this one is hard to beat. Great care was taken to explain the smaller elements which help to make up the essence of the meal, such as the correct tearing of the kaffir leaves and the pounding of the garlic and the correct use of spices which are such an integral part of Thai cooking.

We chose the half day course which ran from 9.30 to 1.30. If I recall we ran a bit over that time and Yui was happy to chat for a bit after that and young son, Sid, was a star attraction, drawing many oooohs and aaaahs from the ladies! Price was in 2008 (and still is, in 2010, according to the website) 900 baht for the half day and 1200 baht for the full day from 9.30 to 4.30. The price included a thin, but invaluable, cook book detailing all 29 dishes taught by the school, laid out in a colorful, picturesque style. Additional sections on ingredients, sauces, fruits, curry pastes and dips complete the book.

I am not one of life's natural cooks, but I really did enjoy this course and, more importantly, learnt things which have remained with me to this day. Sadly, my own pictures of that day and the dishes we cooked are lost (and I must credit fedification.com for the VW picture)  but that, happily, means I will have to take this course again and update this post with fresh 2010 pictures.

If you do drop by
A Lot of Thai  cooking school in Chiang Mai, have fun and pass on regards and best wishes from Peter and Tuk.

Thai Connoisseur