And you just had some kind of mushroom

And your mind is moving low

Go ask Alice

I think she’ll know

The White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane

Thailand is a good place for mushroom lovers. Normally when we think of mushrooms we think of the edible kind. My two favorites are the shiitake, in Thai called “black mushrooms”, a basic ingredient of lots of Chinese stir fries and soups, and the wonderful rice-straw mushrooms (also called paddy-straw mushrooms), named for the rice straw they are grown in. These are often found in the Thai restaurant favorite “tum yum” soup.

Shiitaki Mushrooms

Rice-Straw Mushrooms

I remember way back in the 60s, during Chinese New Year’s dinners at our house in New York, the feast’s show-stopper would be that plate of shiitake mushrooms cooked in oyster sauce. Shiitakes were a delicacy and we would have it only once a year because back then, pre Nixon’s visit to China,  there was an embargo against Communist Chinese products into the U.S. They had to be smuggled in from Canada and were very expensive, but they were worth the price and the wait. Even today, when they are cultivated almost everywhere, I still consider them a special treat.

The first time I encountered rice-straw mushrooms was my first or second day in country. I thought I had found a heavenly food. My wife Pikun tells me not to order them when we are out at a restaurant now because they are getting expensive and we can make them so much cheaper at home. But I still order “tum yum het” (mushroom tum yum) just about any time I can.

Lately Thailand cultivates lots of other mushrooms. The oyster mushrooms are popular as are those little Japanese ones, enokitake, we find in soups. And every rainy season the hunters and gatherers, of which there are still a few left, go up into the mountains and return with baskets full of wild mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Next time you are driving from Chiang Mai to Lampang (on the way to Bangkok maybe) there is a market at about the 50K mark from CM. You’ll find all kinds of “forest” foods there, bugs and birds, and creepy crawlies, along with lots of mushrooms you’ve never seen before.

For our more adventurous friends, there are the buffalo-shit mushroom (it’s where they grow). Also called cow-dung mushrooms but probably best known as “magic mushrooms” or “psilocybin”.  I think this is the kind that Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane are singing about (check out the link to “White Rabbit” above).  They are technically toadstools, or poisonous, and it has been a long time since I have been that adventurous, but I do have fond memories of drinking “sky juice”, psilocybin tea, on the island of Jamaica and encountering ”kaleidoscopes” when I closed my eyes.

Our experiment in raising Oyster Mushrooms

Enokitake Mushrooms

Magic Mushrooms growing in buffalo dung

But now, since the latest visit from my son Darin, I am  getting familiar with medicinal mushrooms, popular where Darin lives, and also becoming quite popular here in Thailand, although the Chinese have known about their healthful properties for centuries.  Darin lives on Orcas Island, in Washington State up near the Canadian border in the great Pacific Northwest, aka The “Left Coast”. And there is nothing more “left”, both geographically as well as culturally, as Orcas Island and btw, it is also one of the more beautiful and enchanted places in America, where live more deer and rabbits than people, and where Dungeness crabs and Pacific salmon, and orcas, and whales, and elephant seals, and the huge Stellar Sea lions, and giant octopi, make the waters around Orcas Island a living soup.

Darin and Pikun going out crabbing

Deer population on Orcas Island

The catch

But, as usual, I digress.

I now am learning about reishi, cordycep, and monkey-head mushrooms, as well as jiaokulan, and stevia leaves, all now cultivated in Thailand.

Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) 

Reishi from a tree trunk in our backyard

Reishi mushrooms have been a staple in the traditional Chinese pharmacology for centuries. They are wood mushrooms that grow on the bases of trees and fallen logs. They are hard like wood and inedible although they can be boiled down and the bitter tea made from them can be drunk.

Formerly they were quite expensive but the price has fallen since the Thais have learned to cultivate them. I have visited a number of reishi farms and research centers in northern Thailand and the hilltribes are raising them and selling them to distributors in Chiang Mai.  I get my reishis from the Kings Project markets.

Modern studies on reishi’s effects on our health have been carried out in Japan, China, USA, and the UK.

Health claims for reishis include enhanced immune systems, anti-tumor effects, improved liver function, and lowered blood pressure. Also, reishis are thought to alleviate common allergies by inhibiting histamine release. And of course ingesting them will lead to a longer life, or so it is said.

No side effects have been noted in long-time use of reishis.

Reishis have become a big hit in Thailand and are considered a life lengthener by those who imbibe. They are referred to by the Thai rendering of their Chinese name. In Thai they are called “het lin jeur”, reishi being their Japanese name.

Corteceps (Cordyceps militaris)  

Cordyceps. The caterpillar, or what’s left of it, is under the ground.

Cordyceps, aka caterpillar mushrooms, have a very peculiar life cycle. All the things we call mushrooms are really only the flowering part of the organism. The real stuff of mushrooms is called the mycelium. The mycelium usually live underground in long strands looking very similar to a nerve bundle. When it is time to reproduce they send out their “mushrooms” which will open up and spread their spores.

A spore of the cordyceps will find its way on to a caterpillar, embed itself, and the mycelium will start to grow inside the little caterpillar host. It eventually kills the host and a mushroom will sprout from its desiccated body, usually the head.

It may sound creepy but these medicinal mushrooms are hunted in northern China and Tibet and can fetch big bucks. Since the 14 hundreds they have been a part of Chinese medicine.

They reportedly have anti-cancer properties, improve renal function, reduce cholesterol levels, increase energy and testosterone levels but are mainly prized for their aphrodisiac potential (energy). There are even claims that they increase a woman’s libido. I take them of course because they reportedly just make you feel “well”; believe me.

The big drawback to cordyceps is their price, as much as hundreds of dollars an ounce. So for years people have been trying to cultivate these, and they finally they have been successful. I visited the Chiang Mai University mushroom labs and saw their products growing under glass; no caterpillars were harmed in the YouTube video linked to above.

Although the specific species that is cultivated is different from the expensive ones collected on the Tibetan plateau, it is still believed that they have beneficial effects on our health. And the cultivated ones, although a bit pricey, costs way less than their “wild” counterparts.

 

Monkey head aka Lion’s mane aka  Yamabushitake (Hericium Erinaceus)

The Lion’s Mane Mushroom, aka Monkey Head

I don’t take these regularly. You can find them in many markets, sold for food, and they are used in soups, and are also sold as a dietary supplement in capsule form. I have included them here because I really like the name, Monkey Head. But they are supposed to have real medicinal qualities like enhanced memory, nerve growth, and longevity and may someday be used in treating Alzheimer’s.

 

Jiaokulan

A leafy plant originally from China, aka Fairy Herb, Southern Ginseng. Claims about Jiaokulan are that it lowers cholesterol, and blood pressure and improves heart function. It is supposed to be an anti-aging agent, an antioxidant, and is a detoxifying agent. Supposedly it also improves memory and prevents hair loss. If the last is true then I’d buy stock right now.

Jiaokulan leaves can be bought at many large markets and are now sold in tea bags.

 

Stevia

I have a bit of trouble with artificial sweeten drinks, especially those that use aspertame. I don’t know if aspertame causes any health problems but when I have used it it has made me feel lousy. And there is that terrible aftertaste. So I have avoided artificial sweeteners.

Stevia is not artificial, it is as sweet as sugar, and there is no aftertaste. Stevia is also sold in markets in Thailand.

*****

With my son’s encouragement I have been using some of these medicinal herbs and mushrooms. I don’t know if they have had an effect on my longevity, but I’m not dead yet so, Maybe.

My morning mushroom concoction (Life Juice)

  1. I cut up about 10 pieces of dried reishi mushrooms into a large pot. Bring it to a boil and then turn it down to simmer for about 3 hours.
  2. After about 3 hours I put in the jiaokulan leaves. I currently use the kind that are in tea bags of which I use 4.
  3. The reishi mushroom tea is quite bitter so after I turn the heat off I add stevia leaves. Normally stevia sweetens the drink but because of the bitterness of the reishi it balances everything out to neutral so it isn’t really sweet but the bitterness is gone.
  4. I strain this concoction into a large bottle which I refrigerate; enough life juice for a week or so.
  5. Each morning I take a large cup, squeeze half a lemon into it and a pinch of cordycep mushrooms with a regular tea bag. Green tea or herbal teas work just as well.  I fill the cup up halfway with boiling water.
  6. When the tea is brewed I take the reishi life juice and add it to fill the cup to the top.
  7. I drink this every morning and if all the literature is right I will be writing this blog for another 50 years.

To learn more about mushrooms (fungi) and how they can save the world you can watch Paul Stamet’s TED Talk here.

 

Advertisements

Apologies to Hamlet. But really, I think Hamlet was talking about doing himself in, or in his words, “shuffled off this mortal coil”.

Me, I just want to sleep through the night.

When we get older our sleep patterns change, not usually for the better. My sleep patterns currently suck.

Is it normal to wake at 3 am just so I can fall asleep reading, or watching TV, or listening to my wife talk about her day at 8 pm? So I turned on my Android tablet and said to it, “Okay Google, Why do we have sleep problems when we get older?”

And to paraphrase Google:

Changes to sleep patterns are part of the normal aging process.

(Well that sucks.)

67% of people over 55 complain of frequent sleep problems. When we get older we tend to produce less melatonin, a hormone that helps to regulate sleep.

(Nothing seems to work as well as it used to.)

It is a common misconception that sleep needs decline as we get older.

(I fell asleep right in the middle of the latest Star Wars movie; in the middle of a battle scene.)

Okay Google, so tell me something I didn’t know.

Falling asleep in the early evening and getting up in the AM is referred to as “Advanced sleep phase syndrome” (ASPS).

So now that I can put a name to it, everything will be fine – NOT!

*****

Making Lemonade, literally

Not being able to sleep past 4 am is being given a pretty sour lemon. After weeks of just lying in bed in the pre-dawn I decided to give up trying to get back to sleep and I just got up. It turns out that is not such a bad thing after all, especially in the hot season.

I now get up when I wake up. I do some yoga, lift a few weights, do some Internet surfing, and write this post. After a few hours the sun comes up and I go out into the garden. My assignments are to rake the leaves and lift bags of manure, something I can really use my costly education for. At this time in the morning it is nice and cool.

I also check out our fruit trees, especially the lemon grove. I pick whatever is ripe. By 8:30 am, I’ve been up for about 4 hours by now, the sun starts getting hot and I’m done for the day, except for a nice cold lemonade from the lemons I picked earlier.

*****

One solution

I recently found a small solution to this sleep problem. A good Thai friend had just bought a new house right on the Ping River here in Chiang Mai. As most Thais will do when they move into a new house they had a Buddhist ceremony to bless the house and to call for happiness and prosperity for the new occupants.

The ceremony consisted of a retelling of the occupant’s life history and then the nine monks got down to chanting. As they began to chant all the guests placed their hands together in front of them. I did the same and also closed my eyes. About 20 minutes later the chanting was finished, and I awoke from the best and most refreshing sleep I had had in the last few weeks. If this Advanced sleep phase syndrome doesn’t get better I just might make visiting a house warming ceremony a regular thing.

*****

Those of you who have been with me since the beginning of time, or at least since I was writing the “Retiring Attitude” column for the Chiang Mai City Life magazine, might remember that I touched on the topic of sleep once before.  It was so nice to live in a world before my advanced sleep phase syndrome became a part of my life. Here is the article, later reprinted in my eBook Retired Life in Thailand.

Power Napping

“Sir, if you’ll not be needing me, I’ll close down for a while.” With that, the droid C3PO (Star Wars IV, A New Hope) shuts down and re-energizes himself. That always intrigued me. I wondered if I could do the same thing. Then I learned about Power Napping.

Thailand, especially on a stifling hot season afternoon, can be a rather enervating place. There is a Thai word “chee-wit-chee-wa” meaning animated and lively. Well, a hot Thai afternoon will suck the “chee-wit-chee-wa” right out of you. But a power nap might just be the medicine that will get it back.

There are lots of versions of power napping around the world. Spain and the Latin American countries have their siestas, the Japanese have the inemuri and the sleep scientists have what they call polyphasic sleep. They all mean basically the same thing, crashing for a short period in the middle of the day. I have been watching the construction workers in my compound. Right after lunch each person heads for someplace shady; under a tree, next to a wall, under a truck. And they all take part in “polyphasic sleep”. They simply close down for an hour. I’ve learned to do the same thing.

A power nap is not a catnap. A catnap is when you are sitting in your chair and doze off for a few minutes. A real power nap involves a complete break from the hustle and bustle of your daily life. It is a time to be completely relaxed, just as you would in your own bed. The rest you get from power napping is akin to the calm feeling one gets after a meditation session.

Studies have shown that for experienced nappers, power naps are as good as a night of sleep on revitalizing memory, relieving fatigue, and boosting energy. Remember when you were a kid in primary school and you always had “nap time”. There was a good reason for that when you were little and there is a good reason for it now. It is probably unnatural to force yourself to stay awake for 16 straight hours. Watch your dog or cat and see how long they stay awake.

Lately, even big corporations see the value in having their employees take short naps during the day. Some companies are now providing special rooms with low lighting and cots for sleeping. They know that a revitalize employee is a more productive one.

So, how does one power nap? Power napping is trainable. The main thing is to find a place to completely relax, where you can rest, or sleep, for at least 10 to 30 minutes. Here is what I do. I get out of my regular clothes, get into the clothes I use for sleeping at night, I draw the shades, and then I get into bed. I usually fall asleep right away and something in me wakes me after just about 20 minutes (if I sleep longer I sometimes feel groggy). Then I get up, wash my face, brush my teeth, and I am ready for the rest of the day.

Besides feeling refreshed and being much more alert and productive later in the day, I don‟t fall asleep in front of the TV at night anymore. It sounds contradictory but a good nap helps you to stay awake. Like meditation, power napping allows you to release all the gunk cluttering up your mind. It is sort of like rebooting a computer that has too much stored in its RAM that makes it start to slow down.

There is another reason why I think we should nap? To use another metaphor, I like to think our bodies are like automobiles. When we are awake we are putting miles on the odometer. Taking a nap is like putting the engine in neutral. If our engine has a fixed limit in the number of miles we can run then napping, or putting our engines in neutral, will make our engines last longer.

Well, I feel that old “chee-wit-chee-wa” fading a bit. I‟ll get back to work after naptime. Sweet dreams.

If you are going to pull up stakes and move to a different country then you’ll have to deal with lots of changes. Language, food, and climate differences will put you under lots of stress.  Culture shock will occur and you’ll have to deal with that too. But probably the first big change will happen deep inside you. No, I’m not talking about the psychological effects of leaving home and living in a strange land. I’m referring to your bowels.

Remember long ago, after a visit to Mexico, President Jimmy Carter caused an international incident when he talked about “Montezuma’s Revenge”? It’s a real thing. Here in Thailand it is sometimes referred to as “Bangkok Belly”, but less likely to cause an international uproar, we could use the term “traveler’s diarrhea”.  Well, even if you take lots of care about eating clean foods, and drinking clean water to avoid the dreaded “runs”, the bacteria we all have inside our guts that we need to assist in our digestion and absorption of nutrients are different in different parts of the world. And sometimes our gastrointestinal tract rebels against these alien microbes.

However you refer to it, you’re going to get it. Hopefully it will be the simple kind that you can “stop” with over-the-counter meds. Once in a while it will be lots worse. Don’t ignore it, stay hydrated, see a doctor if it doesn’t clear up in a few days, especially if you have stuff coming out of multiple orifices. Once you are here a while you won’t be bothered too often. The once illegal aliens in your bowels will become acceptable citizens.

To help you identify this problem, and to know that when it happens to you that you are not alone, I want to share some of my gastrointestinal anecdotes with you, aka, the non-euphemistic term “Poop Stories”.  You may already have, and if you don’t, you most like will have, lots of your own stories to tell, no doubt. These stories are lots of fun to tell, AFTER the fact.

*****

I missed that class

Back in 1969 I went to Peace Corps training on the Big Island of Hawaii. We had three-months training in the Thai language, Thai culture, and in Teaching English. Our trainers tried to prepare us for just about everything we would encounter when we began our volunteering in country, the dos and don’ts, the food, the religion, the Thai houses, kitchens and bathrooms.

One important lesson was how to use the Thai squat toilets. Back then, these were just about the only toilets one would find. So all the volunteers were made aware of and shown how to use them. One problem I had, on the day of the toilet lesson I was away at the training center’s clinic getting a yellow fever injection. So, a few months later, when we got to Bangkok I had never seen or even heard of these squat toilets.

typical_toilet_in_urban_syria-_flush_toilet_squatting_pan_3232388550

We were paired up and spent our first night in-country at a Bangkok hotel. We got to Bangkok at about 2 am and before turning in for the night I needed to use the toilet. I went into the bathroom and right there on a small platform I encountered the first squat toilet I had ever seen. What do you think you would do if you were in my place?

Instead of describing my first Thai faux pas, minutes after arriving in country, here are some pictures describing how and how not to use a squat toilet.  See the picture on the bottom right? Yes, that was me.

how_to_use_the_japanese-style_toilet

Well, for the next three years I lived in a small cabin, with light bulbs hanging from the ceiling and no screens or running water. And my outdoor toilet was, yes, you guessed it, of the squat variety. And through necessity I became an expert, a skill this 70 year old body fortunately doesn’t need to use much anymore since the sit-down variety are found almost everywhere, and if you are lucky and encounter one of those computerized Japanese “smart” toilets, you’re in for a treat. But like I should have done before coming to Thailand, you might have to take a lesson or two in how to use them (A Westerners Guide to Japanese Toilets).

 

Meeting the ambassador

Being from the “Mean Streets” of New York (Scorsese shot his movie with De Nero only a few blocks from where I grew up), the idea of meeting an ambassador was pretty daunting. But on our second day in Bangkok our Peace Corps group was scheduled to meet the ambassador, Leonard Unger, at a welcoming reception at the U.S. embassy. As excited as I was to enter the rarified air of the international diplomatic corps, I had one small problem.

The day before, probably with a little hubris, I had eaten noodles from a street vendor, and loaded my bowl with about a dozen red hot chilies (or rat-turd-peppers in the translation from Thai). And as hubris, coupled with chilies and alien bacteria will do to you, I got as sick as a dog.

I quickly learned to use that squat toilet in my hotel room.  It only took about a dozen visits in the first hour, and with a fever and sweat pouring out of my pores and other stuff pouring out of “wherever” I got on the bus to the embassy. I had a sinking feeling that my entry into the world of high government was not going to go as I had hoped.

Even though I grew up on the “Mean Streets” I had learned something about etiquette and diplomatic protocol. I must have learned what I knew from my readings, which were extensive for a street kid. For example, I learned which fork to use by reading Miss Manners in her New York Daily News column. So I must have learned about “receiving lines” sometime about then.

And so here I was, on my first formal receiving line. There were the embassy’s diplomatic corps, followed by Mrs. Unger, and then the ambassador himself. The cramps hit me as soon as I shook the first hand. By the time I got to the ambassador’s wife I was close to exploding. The wonderfully gracious Mrs. Unger extended her hand and said in a warmly welcoming voice “Welcome to Thailand, son”.

And as in the line from the Kenny Rogers’ song The Gambler goes, “And the night got deathly quiet, and his (my) face lost all expression”, and all I could say at my introduction to high society, something I had dreamed about and wished for since I was a boy was, “Where is the bathroom?”

Now another person might have been put off by this. Another person might have been offended. The gracious Mrs. Unger, seasoned diplomat as she was, knowingly took me by the hand and lead me down the hall, to a small bathroom, the sit-down kind, where I remained for the duration of our reception.

Once again I learned, be careful what you wish for.

 

Friends come for an unexpected visit

Many of our Thai friends seem to like to surprise us by showing up unannounced to stay for a visit. Two of our friends now make sure to call before appearing on our doorstep, and with good reason.

Regular “Bangkok Belly” is more or less an inconvenience. That is not the case with another affliction travelers encounter, food poisoning. I have come down with food poisoning a few times. It takes the form of super diarrhea and projectile vomiting, two activities I could easily eschew. Food poisoning usually lasts for about 24 hours and if you survive you’ll be about 10 lbs. lighter, and exhausted. Exhausted were what my unannounced visitors were the next morning after a night dealing with the aftereffects of my bowl of lunchtime Tom Yum Noodles had done its worst.

At the time, we lived in a one-room wooden house which we used on the few weeks a year we spent in Chiang Mai. It contained a small kitchen, small bathroom, a bed, a table, and a few chairs. So when our friends appeared and asked to stay the night there was nowhere for them to sleep but for some mats we had on the floor. Picture this, middle of the night, they are lying on the floor, between my bed and the bathroom door. That’s when my battle with food poisoning ensued.

I had no choice but to walk (and later climb) over our friends (a big no-no in Thai culture) to get to the bathroom. Not only the fact that all night they had to endure the groans and other sounds related to my illness coming from within the bathroom walls, but I had to make this nocturnal excursion (and I really counted) 27 times that night.

Our friends wisely waited until we moved into our permanent home and built a guest bungalow before making their next visit. And of course, they called first.

 

In the jungle, the mighty jungle

I once had one of those one-up type arguments with a friend on who had been the poorest growing up.

Me: We were so poor that in the tenements we lived in, many of us had to go down the hall to use a shared bathroom. And my bathtub was in the kitchen.

My Friend: I was so poor growing up in Kentucky that we didn’t even have outdoor plumbing. When we had to go we went out into the corn fields.

My friend won that argument.

Once when I was out trekking in the northern Thai forests we spent the night in a Karen village. When I felt Nature’s call I asked the headman where the bathroom was. He pointed out the door. It was pitch black at night and when I got to the door and looked out all I could see was the jungle. The headman gestured again, out the door. He meant that, like my Kentucky-bred friend, I was to do my duty “outside”.

So, without a flashlight, I ventured out into the dark forest and with the light of a few stars found an empty spot that looked appropriate. Being now skilled in squatting I simply dropped “trow”, collected a few leaves from a nearby tree and proceeded to answer Nature’s call.

Just then I heard a rustling of the bushes around me. Then a low groan. I know that tigers have been long gone from this area, but what about leopards? The rustling came closer. The groans louder. And I was only halfway through my present activity. I was sure I was going to die an ignominious death with my trousers around my ankles.

Then bursting out of the bushes came the most enormous black pig I had ever seen. He came right up to me, checked out what I was doing, pushed me aside, and proceeded to devour my current contribution to the forest floor. I quickly finished up and took off, as my hog friend cleaned up after me.

No wonder, even with the whole village using the forest as a bathroom, the land around us was completely clean of any sign of such use. They had their own cleanup squad. I tried not to think about that pork we had that night for dinner.

 

A Balinese farmers market

I don’t want to sound like Thailand is the only place one encounters gastric discomfort. Probably the worst I ever felt was when I got a case of “Balinese Belly” while visiting that enchanted isle.

I was enjoying a wonderful evening meal up in a mountain village on the verandah of an inn overlooking a huge volcanic caldera. A thousand feet below and about a mile away was the cinder cone of a volcano which exploded with a column of black smoke every 15 minutes or so. When the sun set, the black smoke turned into a fiery red shower. Since there was no electricity in the village, with only lantern light, the show was spectacular. That is until the well-known symptoms of another assault on my intestines kicked off.

Knowing that I only had about a minute before I would erupt like the volcano, I asked our host for the WC and she said to go out pass the small field next to the inn, turn right, and about 50 yards down the road you’ll find the village outhouse. I grabbed the lantern, the only one they had, and set off.

Wearing my sarong, and surrounded by every dog in the village barking loudly, I only made it 25 yards. Oh, did I tell you that halfway down the road the lantern had gone out?

I cleaned up with a torn-off strip of my sarong, and followed the sound of the exploding volcano back to the inn.

That night, at least a dozen times, I never made it to the village outhouse but settled for the small field next to the inn. My sarong was now in shreds, almost completely stripped away, when morning came.

When I finally awoke I heard a commotion outside my bedroom window. I pulled the curtain aside and looked out. The field next to the inn, that same field that had been the scene of my nefarious doings, had been turned into a morning farmers market. There were the fruit sellers and vegetable vendors setting up for the day, and right next to each stall was a bit of stained grass, and behind each, hanging on the branches of the bushes, was a strip of what appeared to be sarong cloth.

Still sick, I quickly packed up, hopped on my rented motorcycle, and made a speedy exit out of town, never looking back.

*****

Happy travels and may you survive to have lots of good stories to tell.

Becoming a Tourist Again

February 14, 2017

Before retiring to Thailand I spent many years as a part-time resident and a part-time tourist. Upon retiring and settling down here, my time spent doing touristy stuff in Thailand became less and less. I had forgotten what a really cool place this is to be a tourist. Then some old friends came for an extended visit and helped us to remember.

John and Denise and Pikun and I had shared a house together when John and I got jobs teaching in Iran. This was in the mid 70s, before the Iranian revolution and when the Shah was still in power. We later joined them when we moved to Seattle and have been friends ever since. After many invites to visit us here in Thailand they acquiesced and in being their tour guides for the next three weeks we also got to renew our acquaintance with them as well as with so many wonderful places that surround us here and that we had forgotten to appreciate.

Here is some of what we did. Denise had done her homework and had a bucket list of the many places to visit and things to do while here in Thailand, and we were able to check off the majority of them. I had done all of these things and visited all of these places years ago. All had changed, some for the better, some not, but I was glad to experience them all again. If you are just coming here, this tour will get you acquainted with your new home. If you have lived here a while, try revisiting them.

*****

Temples

Lift your eyes just about anywhere in Thailand and you’ll probably be looking up at a temple or pagoda (“chedi” in Thai). You don’t have to go to a fancy temple popular with tourists. Just about all of them are filled with beautiful artwork and architecture. We are lucky here in Chiang Mai, a city of over 300 temples, or “wats”. You can spend days going from temple to temple, as we did with churches and cathedrals on our visit to Italy. But we narrowed down our choice to two for John and Denise to tour, Wat Doi Suthep, the temple which overlooks Chiang Mai from its mountain perch, and Wat Doi Kham, our own local temple, also on a mountain, this time overlooking our house.

Wat Doi Suthep is the one temple that people say is a must visit on you trip to Chiang Mai. I myself don’t visit it often because it has become quite commercial with vendors lining every empty space along the road around the temple. But it is beautiful and on a clear day will give you a panoramic view of the city a thousand meters below. I put John and Denise on a red taxi for the trip up the mountain. The taxis queue just west of the entrance of Chiang Mai University on Huay Kaew Road and will save you from driving that winding road up the mountain.

Doi Suthep Temple overlooking the city of Chiang Mai

Doi Suthep Temple overlooking the city of Chiang Mai

My favorite temple was the one near my house on Doi Kham Mountain. Wat Doi Kham is a sister temple to Wat Doi Suthep and the temple buildings and the central chedi are replicas to the ones on Doi suthep although about a third the size. But, as happens to so many nice places around the world, Wat Doi Kham has become even more commercial than Wat Doi Suthep. What was once a quiet beautiful temple has now become inundated with visitors after a rumor that the Buddha image there will grant your wishes, and even give you the winning lottery numbers.  Denise got frisky and walked the hundreds of steps up to the temple. There are some huge Buddha images up there and she got a great view of the south of the city and the Royal Flora Park below.

The new 19 meter standing Buddha at Wat Doi Kham

The new 19 meter standing Buddha at Wat Doi Kham

We now found a temple that no tourists visit. It has only one monk and is quiet and meditative. There will probably be one just like it only doors away from you where you will be staying.

*****

Culture

Chiang Mai was originally a kingdom of its own. It has its own language, music, dances, and culture. One place where you can experience the culture of the north of Thailand is at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center just south of the city wall. There you’ll get a taste of northern Thai food, called a “Khandok” dinner, with sticky rice, barbecued chicken, northern pork stew and northern sausages. And with the dinner you’ll be entertained with Thai music and dances and the hill tribe cultures. It’s real touristy but a great place to spend an evening. The food is really good and plentiful too.

One thing to note. Northern Thais eat sitting on the floor with a small short table (the “khandok” table) holding the food. If sitting on the floor makes your old bones scream like it does mine, then request a table and chairs. You and your bones will be much happier.

Dancers at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center

Dancers at the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center

*****

Markets

I still love Thai outdoor markets. I visit my local one almost daily and usually in the middle of every Thai town is a morning or an evening market. There are also markets that meet on designated days (“talaat not”), similar to farmers markets back home. But the one can’t-miss-market in Chiang Mai is the Sunday evening “Walking Street Market”.

The usually busy streets of the central part of the old city, within the moat, become traffic-free and by early evening the handicrafters, artists, and food vendors set up.  Just about every kind of Thai handicraft, woodcarving, garment, and art work will be there, as well as t-shirts and tourist trinkets and street foods. There are now “walking street” markets all over Asia but the one here was the first of its kind.

It’s best to go there early. We go at 4pm. By about 5:30 the streets will be crowded with market goers. By 7pm tens of thousands jam the streets. Unless you are an avid people-watcher it is a good idea to get out of there before the crowds make market browsing impossible.

The Walking Street Market (before it gets crowded).

The Walking Street Market (before it gets crowded).

*****

Thai gardens and flora

John and Denise spent lots of time in our garden. When you leave a cold country in the winter and land in the tropics, just hanging around a Thai garden is as good as visiting any tourist spots. Growing a garden in Thailand is almost opposite to growing one in a cold country. There you need to encourage and nurture and pray that your plants grow. Here, we spend most of our time cutting and pruning and trying to control our plants’ growth. So gardens and parks in Thailand are great places to visit.

Kham Tiang Market:  Gardening is one of the most popular leisure-time activities around the world. Thais love gardening and because of its popularity there are garden centers and flower markets in every town. There is a large market near the river here that has just about every cut flower you could think of. But for gardeners, the Kham Tiang Market is the place to go; a huge garden center where walking through it is as good as a tour through any botanical garden. From flowers, to orchids, to full grown trees, to garden statues and fountains, and Japanese koi fish, you can get anything for your garden.

Flower and plant vendors.

One of the hundreds of flower and plant vendors at the Kham Tiang Market.

 

Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens: The Mae Saa Valley, with its elephant shows, and tiger gardens, and orchid farms, and monkey schools, and snake shows, is a big hit with foreign tourists. We drive past all of these and head for the place that most Thai tourists visit. Settled right in the mountains, the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens contains beautiful tended gardens as well as a group of green houses containing medicinal plants, carnivorous plants, cacti, a tropical waterfall, and lotuses. The best thing about it for us, everyone over 60 is let in for free. Check out the video.

The Royal Flora Park: In 2006 Thailand threw a highly successful International Horticultural Exhibit attracting garden exhibits from dozens of countries and 30,000 visitors a day. After the exhibit closed the park was kept open to the public and can be visited daily. There is a beautiful northern style palace (Haw Kham) and the park is used for a number of festivals including a New Years Eve countdown.

A beautiful park at the base of Doi suthep/Doi Bui National Park (with Wat Doi Kham on the mountain above)

The northern style palace, “Haw Kham”, at the base of Doi Suthep/Doi Bui National Park (with Wat Doi Kham temple on the hillside above)

*****

Thai History

I’m a pushover for ruins having visited Rome, and Greece, and Egypt, and our neighbor here to the east Angkor Wat. And Thailand has some really interesting ruins too, especially in the northeast. But the queen of them all is Sukhothai, the former Thai capital. After being named as a World Heritage site the ruins at Sukhothai have been spruced up and are quite beautiful. If you are doing a road trip to Sukhothai you might want to visit the nearby ruins at Sri Sachinalai Historical Park and the historical park right in the middle of Kamphaeng Phet town.

Sukhothai's restored ruins

Sukhothai’s restored ruins

*****

Beaches

But John and Denise’s visit wouldn’t be complete until we experienced the tropical humidity, see palm trees and rubber trees, and walk on the beaches and islands of the south. We like Trang Province because of its isolation compared to Phuket and Pi Pi Island (2 places we loved 10 years ago but never visit today). But we chose to fly down to Krabi (pronounces Kra-bee, not crab-ee). Krabi is really not Thailand anymore. The workers there are often foreigners (the hotel desk clerk Philippina, the bartender American, the waiter Nepali). But we got a room on the beach, did some island hopping, and ate lots of fresh sea food while watching the sun set over the Andaman Sea. Commercial as Krabi is, I still love the place, as did our two visitors.

Long-tail boats for island hopping

Long-tail boats for island hopping

*****

Lots of other stuff to do here

We visited elephants (not the show and riding kind but the more natural, happy, retired elephant kind), ate lots of Thai food (J and D learning that the Thai restaurants back in Seattle serve cuisine not anything like what we eat here), drank lots of Thai ice coffee and cappuccino fraps, and, especially John, drank lots of Thai beer and got a daily massage.

My massage story: John and I were taking a walk on the Ao Nang beach in Krabi and there were lots of massage shops set up there for tourists. John hadn’t had his daily massage so he elected to get one on the beach. Unlike John I am not addicted to Thai massage but I didn’t want to wait around so decided to get one too.

Here is what happened. I told the manager, Please be gentile. I don’t want a hard massage. I don’t want to hurt. He said sure. I lay down and waited for my masseuse. The girl working on John (who turned out to be really gentile) looked up as my masseuse arrived. She said, Oh no! You got Sumalee. It’s going to be a hard one. You’re going to hurt for sure.

When I studied karate we learned about nerve bundles and how to use them to disable our opponent by using them to inflict severe pain. Sumalee knew each one of them and dug her thumbs into every nerve bundle of mine she could find. I was still hurting 3 days later. It reminded me why I don’t get Thai massages very often. John got another one the next day.

*****

John and Denise got on the plane for their long trip home after their tropical sojourn. The last I heard was that there was a foot of snow on the ground in Seattle and not a masseuse to be found. I love Seattle but I am still really glad to be here.

 

 

Thai Vocabulary in the News

Learn Thai vocabulary Words that have recently appeared in the Thai Newspapers

A Woman Learning Thai...and some men too ;)

Learn Thai Language & Thai Culture

Retire 2 Thailand's Blog

Thoughts on retiring in Thailand