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Last “Special” dishes and party at Brown Rice/Organic Bistro

It was our last day of cooking, Wednesday, the day Duang closes the restaurant so he proposed that we cook all of the 10 remaining dishes. We didn’t quite achieve that but we certainly made enough to feed the friends that I invited along…

Next step is to tidy up the manuscript and then approach publishers (Duang has worked with one before).

Exciting times, although I couldn’t rest on my laurels too much since I had to dash over to Laos to renew my visa.

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More Progress at Brown Rice/Organic Bistro

Big progress is being made at Brown Rice – both in terms of the book and the restaurant.
There are pictures above of some of the dishes we have been cooking and some of the new additions at the restaurant such as the Citron Honey Soda which is made from special lime-like fruit that has been delivered from Bangkok – not available anywhere else in Chiang Mai right now…

We made Pumpkin stuffed with Thai custard – appropriate for halloween along with a number of other Pumpkin dishes – Fries with Red Curry Sauce and Stir Fried Pumpkin with egg and sweet basil.

Other favourites were the Gluai Khaek – or Deep Fried Banana and the “Son-In-Law Egg” Boiled and deep fried eggs topped with fried shallots and dried chili and drizzled with Tamarind sauce. So called because cooking an egg in Thailand, as most places in the world is considered the bottom line in cooking ability and this variation on a simple dish represents the Son-in-Law trying to impress by doing something a bit different. It’s very popular amongst children in Thailand.

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Ko Phangan. Part 2

Of late, things have been kind of leading on, one step to the next without too much attention from me. I have been happy to let the universe do its thing and let the experiences that I want to have come to me. (Of course I had to make the initial leap of coming away in the first place and be constantly willing.) It’s all about meeting the right people to resonate with but the place you are in obviously helps you meet those people and be directed onwards.

Allowing for the natural order of things to pan out is sometimes more challenging than it sounds. These connections can be very strong and unnerving as you realise that you have met someone for a very specific purpose, however unlikely it may at first seem.

I guess places and courses can work in a similar way and I was drawn to Ko Phangan despite my previous visit being purely for the Full Moon Party in all its dayglo, bucket swilling glory. That is the main reason most people visit this place but after spending just an hour or so in Haad Rin I was glad to be nowhere near it. I enjoyed my time here 6 years ago but was in a totally different zone this time.

So my arrival, by accident, in what appeared to be the hippy central of the island on a beach so beautiful that I couldn’t believe my eyes when I sat in my hammock, became even more profoundly interconnected by meeting several people within a couple of days of arriving.

I was wandering and wanted to see the local Sri Thanu Wat, set apart from the main street down a dusty side road lined with trees and with nothing else much around. The Wat seemed to be still under construction with bamboo scaffolding surrounding it and piles of yellow dirt and other materials lying about in the sun. In the background a few monks went about their daily business in the hermitage which I decided against entering.

Slightly feeling that I had made a wasted trip up this street I decided to have a look at the little cafe advertising books and home-made brownies in a ramshackle way that I had passed. I entered through the rickety looking furniture with toys strewn about the dirt floor to be greeted by Jenny, 8 months pregnant and also from England. We had a little chat, I ordered a brownie and browsed the books for sale or to borrow, realising that the fantastic selection of interesting spiritual books were all for rent.  I decided to take Eckhart Tolle‘s The Power of Now which I subsequently spent several days reading in a hammock and at every other opportunity. It speaks about living in the present without the distractions of a past and future that only really exist in our minds anyway and fits in with Buddhism, Yoga and all the other stuff that I’ve been learning. He came to a realisation after sinking to a low but seemingly opened his eyes, looked on the world differently and now teaches this around the world to an adoring audience, it’s inspiring actually. Of course, synchronicity meant that this book had come up before and has been mentioned by various people a lot since, I feel it is one I need to buy and revisit often.

Jenny also told me about the buffet that they had on that night of healthy local vegetarian fare which seemed like something not to miss, ever the indecisive diner, I do love a buffet.

So when I turned up that evening with Marion, the beautiful French girl from my guesthouse with an accent to make the knees tremble, we found the place abuzz and ended up sharing our table with a couple who were clearly a sign…

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Ko Si Chang

Discovering more about different forms of Buddhism and attempting to practice meditation further is something I want to make a part of this trip but I was slightly put off if anything by my visit to the Tam Yai Phrik Hermitage on Ko Si Chang.

Not that it wasn’t a beautiful and peaceful setting but I didn’t find it particularly helpful to my practice (or general wellbeing) to get up at 4AM, only have one meal a day and sleep on a reed mat on a concrete floor with a small and ineffective fan.

I arrived on the Island at around 4 after a bus journey that took about two hours longer than it should since we stopped to wait for more passengers almost constantly. I think I could have walked out of Bangkok quicker. The small ferry pier had a selection of seafood to grill and I chose a bit of squid which was served up in a bag with some extremely spicy sauce – I had been warned and it was really good although little was I to know that it would be the last thing I would eat that day.

Arriving at the monastery I was greeted by Bo, a nun who had been there for around a year, who spoke good English and who had actually lived in London amid “lots of stress of my own making.” “What is life for?” she asked rhetorically and I began to think this might be alright.

The hermitage is set on a hill and surrounded by jungle apart from where the quiet area hosting male lay practicioners (i.e. me) which had a spectacular view overlooking the bay.  It was an indicator of how much we would be staying within nature that as she showed me around we had to pause to allow a snake to slither off the path in front of us.

The steep walk up past the Tam Yai Phrik cave, where a dude meditated before the hermitage was established after he brought some relics back from India which began to multiply.  Alongside the monk’s vegetable garden left me sweating with my rucksack, and it wouldn’t be the last time the shady path would leave me exhausted.

Bo explained the routine at the hermitage which involved a lot of personal meditation practice bookended by chanting and the early morning alms collection. So at 5.25, after morning chanting I would accompany the monks down into the village as they collected the food which would make up their meal that day from the various devotees that took this opportunity to give to the sangha. It was still dark when we set off but an hour later the sun was up and it was already pretty sweaty, particularly when I was carrying a heavy bag.  The monks had a good system, they carried their bowls and would receive the alms directly and then, apart from rice they would put the items in my bag which I would then carry until the next collection table (there were about 4 on the route) from where a guy on a motorbike would collect the bounty.  I have to say I didn’t find the monks particularly friendly or welcoming, they didn’t speak a lot of English from what I could tell but while I was trying to follow instructions in this task I was never sure if my help was appreciated or if they saw me as a hindrance.  I was constantly being told to get in front or behind, on the inside or outside.  Theravada Buddhism is all about digging up the roots of attachment that bind you to rebirth and suffering so I can understand that their practice doesn’t particularly  revolve around interaction, indeed most of their time is spent in Vipassana meditation to realise the differentiation between mind and body. This isn’t an easy practice. It’s something I’ve been toying with doing in the format of a ten day retreat but I’m not sure I’m ready for such an austere method with no external stimulation to distract yourself from your own mind.

Here the setup was different to organised centres where silence is imposed and there is a strict timetable to follow each day. You are pretty much left to your own devices during the day but with no teachings as such I was left feeling a little bit lost. Bon showed me some walking meditation techniques and gave me some English books which was nice but as much as I read and get what the monks are trying to achieve through this practice, personally I struggle to realise the potential and grow frustrated, leading at times to more anxiety than when I started!

When we had collected the food from the village we all joined together for breakfast with the dishes that had been presented served up first to the Monks and then the rest of the practicioners, with us helping ourselves to whatever we wanted in a large metal bowl.  There was always a range of different things on offer, from soups, vegetables, curries to fruits, sweets, and selections of soya milk and other drinks.  I was surprised that the offerings weren’t always vegetarian, although they tended to be, but I learnt that, as in Tibetan Buddhism, there is no compulsion for the Monks to be vegetarian, although it is recommended. They are only allowed to eat what they have been given so the alms collection is important although it was supplemented by vegetables and herbs grown in their garden.

The monks only ate this one meal a day while the rest of us were allowed to save some food for later. The first day I went to my bowl and sat on my verandah for lunch as a nice distraction from meditating. Little did I suspect it would send me so far the other way in terms of relaxation… First I had hornets buzzing around my head but it was easy enough to wave them away and then ignore their hovering presence.  Almost as soon as I had managed to do this and settle back to eating there was a thud and a metallic clang as something fell from above into my lap, making me jump and then squeal like a girl as I realised the creature slithering away from me was the snake we had encountered the previous day.

I don’t know where it had been hiding or if it is normal for snakes to jump on top of people but it certainly broke my concentration as I scurried back inside the hut to finish my meal, keeping one eye on the door..

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Bangkok

So I landed in the “land of smiles” less than a week ago and while I’ve been trying to take it fairly easy, which has been helped a lot by jetlag which left me unsure as to when sleep was a good idea. With a few rather restless nights, I’ve still managed to do a lot of what I wanted to in the first few days of my trip.

Why have I come away again so soon you may ask, and it’s a reasonable question. I never really felt like I had finished my last trip, the end was unsatisfactory and although I did enjoy going home and seeing friends and family I never really planned to stay for long so when my bank balance suggested I could travel again I leapt at the opportunity. Thailand is a stepping stone but it’s been fascinating in the last week and I feel like I’ve got closer to the heart of the country already than I did last time I was here.

I decided to try and get more from Couchsurfing on this trip and it has been fantastic although I haven’t stayed with anyone I met several people through Bangkok groups that I joined and they have been extremely enjoyable and rewarding meetings.

I decided to stay away from the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road this time since I thought I was going to have a funny turn in my cell the last time I was there, and went for one of the highly recommended places in the buzzy Silom district, HQ Hostel. The place was kinda nice, in a Crystal Maze Industrial Zone sorta way and I can’t complain about the beds which were very comfortable or the fact that my four bed dorm was empty for all but the first night I was there (when two guys came in at 3AM but then left by the time I got back after going out earlier in the morning). It wasn’t the busiest place then but that did allow me to make full use of the free wi-fi , the only gripe I would have is that after 4 nights for the price of 3 booked online at a discount when I tried to extend one extra night they were insistent they could do nothing about the price (which was nearly double what I’d been paying.) I said thank you and goodbye and walked across the road to the equally good, if not better Smile Society which was actually cheaper and had free breakfast (although I had to share the dorm with some dick who getting up at 5AM decided to re-pack his bag and then managed to drop coins all over the floor… so yeah, compassion but come on dude a bit of forward planning and consideration…)

Anyway, enough about my accommodation, and more about the area… Silom is a big road which leads to Lumpini Park at one end where I spent a couple of hours on two days, chilling by the lake, attempting to meditate, getting bitten by ants and being bemused by joggers (in this heat!?)

It is also home to the notorious Patpong night market, an area which sells tourist tat and is flanked on either side by go-go bars, ping pong shows, massage parlours like “99 Climax Massage” and guys trying to drag you off to their club where they have the “best girls.” It’s not really as seedy as it sounds, with most of the potential customers being faintly amused or frightened tourists. I saw a ping pong show last time I was here though, and I really don’t need to see one again so it didn’t hold that much interest for me, although I did get a banana pancake just down the road.

Also in this area is Soi Convent which has loads of great street food stalls and the Irish pub Molly Malones which I arranged to meet a couple of CouchSurfers in the second night I was there.

After buying a Guiness that was more expensive than in London I wasn’t terribly impressed but then I met Oh and Adeline, from Bangkok and Malaysia respectively and it was nice to meet some people who worked in the area.  We went for street food and ended up eating some sort of pig stomach soup. Despite my reservations, which I think Oh misunderstood, it was actually really nice with the gloopy gravy much better than it sounds…!

After that we hopped on the BTS (skytrain) and went to the Saxaphone pub where a Thai band was belting out live jazz and the singer did a very passable Sinatra impression. I ordered a dark Paulaner beer and felt like I’d never left London (not that I go to classy places like that in London…)

The next day my intentions were bold but not carried out due to being exhausted so I didn’t really do much apart from eat street food until I met Adeline in the afternoon to go and visit some temples for the Buddhist holiday that had left Bangkok something of a ghost town. We didn’t know exactly what the holiday was about, and neither did anyone we had spoken to but as she is also a Buddhist we thought it was a good excuse to do some sightseeing. We jumped on the Chao Phraya river boat to take us down to Wat Arun which is on the other side of the river to most of town and which rises high up like an old Khmer temple, very similar in style to Angkor Wat.

It was busy there with many people circumnambulating with incense, candles and Lotus flowers and monks talking over the PA system incessantly but cheerfully about who knows what. We watched a monk give a blessing and then decided to climb the steep steps which led to the top. It was quite a climb but the views over the river back to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho made it worthwhile, and there was a breeze up there as well!

 

Back across the other side of the river we bought some purple Dragon Fruit juice from a poetic juice maker and then wandered to Wat Mahathat which is very much a working temple and also an International School for Vipassanna meditiation. Unfortunately we arrived too late for the meditation class but a monk gave us some information and sent us to where many people were beginning to set up for what looked like an allnighter in the main temple hall. We got some incense and so on and did a couple of circumnambulations ourselves before moving on.

It was only on leaving the temple that we were able to discover what the festival was about because they had a display exhibition set up which was very good with figures of the Buddha and the story which were very well explained by one of the helpers there who told us that they were celebrating the Buddha’s first teachings at the Deer Park in Sarnath, India.

The next stop was a busy street food stall where we ordered Tom Yam Goong, Drunken Noodles and a pork steak (of all things). All were great and I think we found a really good place, it was packed which is always a good sign but all three dishes were excellent. The Drunken Noodles were spicy, with a real after kick but the Tom Yam was a perfect balance of sour and spicy because often I can find this dish a bit too much and they were extremely generous with the shrimp. The pork was in a rather nice peppery sauce and came as a good counter point to the other two.

At this point I’ll say that I’ve not lived up to any aim to be more vegetarian on this trip, it really seems hard to do here with pork especially prevalent and street food being rather meat heavy.

I’d arranged to meet another couple of interesting sounding Couch Surfers who were going to a free European Union film festival at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre near Siam Square. I was thrilled when I got there because the place was like nothing else I’ve seen in Asia, a real cool spot similar to the South Bank Centre or the Barbican or something like that with lots of art displays, trendy tea shops and the like in a circular building where the middle-class arty types hang out.  Not sure Thailand has an equivalent to the Guardian but this is where the people who would read it can be found rather than the large shopping malls that surround it, so I fit right in.

We were going to see a German film called Run if You Can which was a comedy about a love triangle involving a nervous cellist and a paraplegic which was rather fun and suggested that the German sense of humour is actually quite good, but then I knew that already..

I had contacted Natt and Pap because of their profiles which made them look interesting and I wasn’t wrong. Both had an interest in Buddhism and Pap is a documentary film maker who has been working on a series about festivals around the world among other things. After the film we went to get some dinner and despite the Buddhist festival managed to get some beer as well which helped us immensely to set the world to rights!  I learnt a lot about the political situation which has obviously been turbulent to say the least in the last couple of years in Thailand and we discussed religion philosophy and the difference between East and West.  Not least came the question, why is the East considered the East and the West the West when the Earth is a sphere. I guess the original cartogrophers coming from Europe naturally placed us in the middle but it certainly gets you thinking about the constructs that we live in every day.  We covered Paganism and Animism as well, with Thailand being a Buddhist country but with most houses also containing a shrine to the earth and spirits due to the strong animistic tradition which seems to have strong links with paganism… interesting.

The next day I arranged to meet Adeline again with the plan to go and get a Traditional Thai massage at a place she had been recommended called Health Land. First I met her at a mall where we had a Bubble Tea, or Pearl Milk Tea, something which has become one of those trendy things in London recently but nowhere near as much as it is over here. There were five stalls within 100m of each other all selling the same thing and apparently it is a craze that all the kids are getting into. Not wanting to miss out on this I had to give it a try. It is basically iced tea but with jelly balls of chewy tapioca starch in the bottom. Highly unusual and probably ridiculously unhealthy but still quite a novelty!

Anyway, after this little treat we went and found the massage place which was in a large impressive building that looked like a hotel from the lobby and from the corridors. It was extremely professional apart from the masseuses who seemed to find both of us hilarious, probably because we couldn’t do up our massage pyjamas properly. After two hours of getting pummelled and sat on I could feel every muscle in my body but in a numb good kind of way..!

We wandered around in a bit of a daze for a while after the massage which suggests it was pretty good until deciding to head to an area called Thong Lo which is known for its ex-pat community and food options. Wandering again we found one place that was phenomenal. Housing  Thai, Japanese and Indian restaurants in a wooden structure with pools and water features and a spa in the middle we were shown around by the delightful girl at the front desk who insisted on telling and showing us everything although after looking at the menu we already knew it was way out of our budget. She was great though and waited until we were leaving to make the point that actually if we came back shorts and flip flops were really not acceptable anyway!

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