Monthly Archives: March 2006

My Thai Father-in-Law

Back home in Australia I was talking to a friend of mine the other day. Both of us are in our fifties and we came to the similar conclusion that it’s very difficult today to find people who you could call “real characters”. By real characters we mean people who due to their attitude or little eccentricities tend to stick out from the mob. In the main these people can be quite ordinary and yet still have a distinct worldliness even though they may not have seen much of the world. My friend and I felt that the dearth of real characters has been brought about by the increasing preference today for style and image over human substance.

Young Tho Rakna

In Thailand I would have to admit to bias, but a person here in the Kingdom who I feel truly deserves the tag “real character” is my Father-In-law of 28 years – Tho Rakna. Although I first met him in 1981 when I paid my first visit to his home in the Isaan village of Ban Phutsa it wasn’t till our next trip in 1984 that I began to get to know him. This was difficult because for the first three days after we arrived he was dead drunk. But after he began sobering up after his latest bender I began to get to know a person who has become quite special to me.

Over the years my wife Mali has told me many stories about her dad’s life. Born in 1923 in the village of Ban Phutsa (where he still lives today) his family was relatively wealthy. Back then as it pretty much is today in rural Thailand, a family’s wealth was determined by the size and number of rice fields owned. By all accounts he was pretty wild in his younger days. When he and his friends roamed the village, many villagers would literally pull up the timber ladders that led up into their homes and probably locked up their daughters as well.

He married in his mid twenties. My Mother-in-law came from the next village – Ban Ta Bong. Apparently another family legend has it that the marriage occurred roughly about the time paper Baht notes were first introduced to gradually replace Baht coins. When he paid the Bride price to his future wife’s family he is reputed to have paid it with counterfeit notes. By the time the fake notes had been uncovered, the marriage was already 6 months old and the first child on its way.

Tho Rakna and family

Although he came from a farming family he has never really been a farmer. Most of his working life was spent as a trader. Traveling over much of North-East Thailand for about 35 years by foot, buffalo cart or whatever transport available. He mainly sold woven mats and kitchen utensils. Back home in Australia sitting on our Buddha table we have one of the copper drinking bowls that he used to sell. He would be away for months at a time but quite often after returning home and having had a few drinks he would boast that he had a wife in every village in Isaan. To this my Mother-in-Law would say simply “well go and live with one of them”. Apparently this was all that was needed to take the wind out of his sails.

One feature of his early life really illustrates this man and his attitude to life. The special feature is that in all his life he has never worn robes. For a man of his generation and coming from this part of Thailand this is quite unusual. Most Thai men usually spend some time as a Buddhist Monk because it is both a tradition and a family and cultural expectation.

Tho Rakna bucked this trend and all his life steadfastly refused to enter the Sangha. This is not to say that he is anti-religious or against tradition – just simply that it was not for him. In fact his live and let attitude to life together with the peaceful balance that he has achieved especially in his later years marks him as a true Buddhist. That’s a personal view.

Although a rare visitor to the village Temple he still carries out charitable acts – regularly giving rice to people down on their luck. A great lover of all animals he has always refused to eat the meat of any cattle or water buffalo that he has owned. Although he will eat chicken he steadfastly refuses to eat duck because he likes them.

Mali and her dad

In human terms he is pretty much a loner and is fairly quiet (except when he has had a few drinks) which again makes him stand out in the boisterousness of Thai society. His quiet personal dislike of cant and hypocrisy brings out an impishness in his nature. As stated above he is a rare visitor to the village temple and is on record as saying that the Sangha has become a “rest camp” for many of the monks and an excuse to gossip by lay people.

On one memorable occasion we were all down at the temple attending a ceremony when to everyone’s surprise my father-in-Law walked in. The head monk expressed surprise and pleasure that he had come to which dad succinctly replied “I wouldn’t be here if I was sober”. Now let me hasten to say that he wasn’t drunk, but was just gently stirring my Mother-In-Law who was a devout Buddhist and a regular visitor to the Temple.

About 8 years ago one of his Grand Daughters got married to a man from Bangkok. A very intuitive man ,Dad felt that the marriage was doomed from the start (he was proven right as it didn’t last 12 months). The wedding was held in the village. Whilst all the family and guests donned their best clothes for the wedding – Dad in contrast came along attired in his standard summer gear – baggy shorts, bare-chested with just his pakemah (male sarong) tied around his waist. Afterwards the groom apparently complained that his wife’s grandfather must be a bit simple. What the city-boy didn’t realize was that my Father-In-law simply had no respect for him. After I was told about it, I thought what a great way to make a statement.

dad and family

Tho Rakna is now 82 years old. He has been a widower for 4 years but is still remarkably healthy. After a lifetime of smoking like a chimney, Whisky SiSip, and numerous motorcycle accidents he has a remarkable constitution. In the autumn of his life he often regrets the passing of friends and acquaintances from the past, but finds solace in his family.

Each year at the end of our trip he always farewells Mali and myself by simply saying “Farewell, good luck and prosperity”. The two great lessons that I have learnt from my Father-in-Law are that like silence, true contentment is golden. The other is that although our lives may appear to be hum drum and inconsequential from time to time, if we dig deep most of us will discover a richness of experience that we tend to overlook.

In Thailand there is nobody who I respect more than Tho Rakna – dare I say it not even the King.


Old Patong: The Start Of Eco-Tourism

One afternoon we went into Phuket town and hung out at the bowling alley for several hours.

They served the best curry in town and Patong Patty was addicted to this one little shop located inside the bowling alley. While we tried to bowl, she wisely ate curry!

Janie, a would be reporter/journalist[ie:freelance writer hoping to make a few baht on local stories],local cabaret singer/entertainer, her husband Pong, Texas Larry and his darlin’ Anong, Patong Patty and myself had already bowled a few games when in walked the Governor Of Phuket, he had arrived in his “official” ride, a rather large “Kennedy” Lincoln and was for some reason in the bowling alley dedicating something to somebody.

Not to miss a chance at a story, Janie immeadiately put her bowling ball in Pongs lap, and ran, with her little snapshot Instamatic camera clicking away at the dignitaries and asking rapid fire questions of the Governor at the same time!

“Why did the people burn down the Tantalum Plant” and “When will the Government stop letting the mines pollute the islands pristine beaches,etc” Janie screeched, the Governor, like a true politician deftly side-stepped the annoying questions and continued on his way, returning to the big white Lincoln and disappearing into the masses of vehicles near the big open air market.

Janie returned to the lanes, a huge grin on her kisser, “these photos will get me a storyline with the Bangkok Post”!

We were all slightly taken aback, cept ofcourse Pong, he’d been married to Janie several years and knew she could and would do the most inopportune things imaginable. Like the time they were having a “discussion”, that is, Pong was on top of their pickup truck as Janie wildly drove and swerved, trying to dump the hapless Pong into the klong or a “moving” coconut tree, all the while yelling at Pong to “get back into the truck”, Pong was wise for such a young man and hung onto the windshild wipers to keep from getting bounced from this wild bull-like ride!

Janies moods could subside into sugar without taking a breathe, just as fast as they could mount into small earthquakes that would rattle those around her to take cover!

Anyway, we never saw the article that Janie was gonna make the big Baht in the Bangkok Post, but later that week they had a huge ralley in Phuket town, Janie of course was there to do her journalistic magic, but somehow the crowd destroyed her small motorbike and grabbed her little Instamatic camera and flung it onto the side of a building, Janie and Pong were most fortunate in escaping into a nearby cafe as the 90cc Honda burnt brightly!

The crowd was entirely pro-tourism and anti-mining plant, it was an ugly time on the island, but soon passed from memory as the bigger and bigger hotels replaced the tin & mineral mining on Phuket, it was difficult to tell which had done the most harm.

A Trip to Chiang Mai

Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

The famous temple on Doi Suthep

Chiang Mai is recognized as the capital of Northern Thailand. The city itself has a lot to offer but it is also a major hub for a variety of trips that include hiking in the mountains, visiting hilltribe people, elephant and bamboo raft rides and handicraft villages. The city is about 700 kms north of Bangkok and if you drive straight here it will take you at least 10 hours. This is now my fourth visit to Chiang Mai in the last 12 years. The first time I came by overnight sleeper train which was both convenient and comfortable. The second time I flew here as the prices of domestic air flight have become very reasonable. The last two occasions I drove to Chiang Mai. I didn’t do this because it is cheaper than flying. In fact, the cost of petrol has gone up so much now that that the price of an airline ticket is cheaper. However, I really love the experience of driving on the open road and the convenience of being able to pack in the car just about everything, excluding the kitchen sink. And with a car you never need to worry where you will stay each night as you can just drive around until you find a hotel with a vacancy. (More on driving in Thailand later)

The main part of the city is defined by the moat and the remnants of the old city wall. Most of the guesthouses are towards the east side of the city and between the eastern moat and the Ping River. It is not that easy driving around the city. Apart from narrow lanes there are also one way roads. When I was driving around I was always worried about turning left down a one way road. They don’t always put up signs and they just presume you should know. Chiang Mai also has pedestrian crossings with traffic lights. I didn’t realize this at first and I kept running the lights and nearly knocked down a few tourists. (I am so used to Bangkok driving where you ignore pedestrians crossing the road.) After a while it started to makes sense. The road on the outside of the moat takes you around the city clockwise. Every now and then you will come across a u-turn which puts you on the road that takes you counter-clockwise around the city on the inside of the moat. Tourists without their own transport can flag down the red songtaews which roam the city. Unlike the songtaews back home, if you pay them enough they will become your personal taxis. Otherwise they pick up other passengers going the same way. Just tell the driver where you want to go. These cost about 10–15 baht when shared. When I came here the first time I rented a tuk tuk for the morning and used this to see the city sights.

The number one attraction is undoubtedly Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on a nearby mountainside. On my last trip this gave some splendid views of the city and surrounding countryside. However, this time I couldn’t even see the mountain from the city. The steep winding road to the top is about 10 kms long and is exhausting even if you are driving. However, we passed a few people along the way who were cycling and even some who were walking! But, the rewards at the top are rewarding with its golden chedi sparkling in the bright sunshine. Within the city moat there are about a dozen or so temples. But only a handful are considered highlights and are visited by people on the city tour. These are Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man and two just outside which are Wat Suan Dok and Wat Chedi Chet Yot. However, I think you will find other temples within the city that are not only just as interesting but certainly more beautiful. It is delightful when you discover these hidden gems for yourself.


Umbrella Village at  Bo-Sang

There is more to Chiang Mai than the temples. Shopping, of course, is a major part of any tourists schedule to this city. The most famous center for shopping is the Night Bazaar. Both sides of Changklan Road, near the Ping River, are lined with hundreds of  mobile vendors. During the daytime, you can also get good prices at the nearby Warorot Market. If you are in the city at the weekend then it is well worth visiting the Sunday Walking Street Market along Ratchadamnern Road. If you can find a guesthouse down a soi off this main road then you would be in a perfect place. The nearer to Thapae Gate you can get means the nearer you will be to the Night Bazaar. Chiang Mai is also the center for handicrafts. You can join tours where they will take you to factories to see things like the making of the colourful umbrellas and silk clothes. If you are driving yourself, just head east towards Bo-Sang Village for the umbrellas or south to Thawai Village for woodcarving.

On my last trip to Chiang Mai I visited Doi Inthanon which is the highest peak in Thailand (if you didn’t know by now, “doi” means mountain in northern dialect). It is 2,565 metres above sea level and even in summer it can be quite cool compared to Chiang Mai which is only 100 kms away. During winter it can go below freezing and is one of the few places in Thailand where you will see ice. You can join overnight trekking tours to this national park (don’t forget foreigners have to pay 200 baht entrance fee) or do it yourself. There are many trails which are clearly marked. It is also worth visiting the twin pagodas which celebrate the 60th birthdays of their Majesties the King and Queen. The flowers here are very beautiful. There are a number of waterfalls you can also visit.

On my first visit to Chiang Mai I joined the hilltribe trek which many backpackers do. You can book these at any tour agency in town. They usually last for two nights and three days. Most of them have the same schedule but they visit different areas. For example, Mae Taeng, Doi Inthanon or Pai. The latter town is fast becoming the place for backpackers to hang out and they often go straight there from Khao San Road. When I did the trek over ten years ago, the agency guaranteed that we wouldn’t meet any other tourists during the trek. I wonder if they can still give such guarantees. On the first day they took us to a waterfall where we had lunch and then in the afternoon we walked for several hours to reach a Karen village. This is where we spent the first night in a wooden hut. I remember our tour guide giving us a demonstration of how to smoke opium. The next day we walked for about three hours before we reached an elephant camp. Here we rode an elephant for about two hours which I assure you was more than enough time. We ended up at a Lahu tribe village where we spent the night. The last day we walked a short way to the river where climbed aboard some very rickety bamboo rafts. We then drifted downstream for about two hours. At the point where the river met the main road we were picked up by minivan and whisked back to Chiang Mai. You can also do this trek for two days.

Elephant camp

If you have limited time or don’t fancy staying overnight in a hilltribe village, you can join one day tours. This is what I did on my second visit to Chiang Mai when I flew there with my sister. We joined a tour that took us north to Chiang Dao Elephant Training Camp. We actually passed there this afternoon and we stopped briefly to take some pictures. We arrived too late for the elephant bathing show which started at 10 a.m. However, we saw most of the elephant show. The guy at the ticket office felt sorry for us and only charged us 30 baht each instead of 60 baht.  The show was actually quite good as it gave demonstrations on how the elephants used to work in the forests shifting logs and stacking them in piles. Most of the people watching this were on package tours. Afterwards they went on an elephant trek into the jungle for about an hour. We didn’t join them but I guess we could have done. The full price of 60 baht was pretty good when these one day tours cost about 800 baht. It is easy to catch a bus this way and they will drop you off at the front gate. When I went on this one day tour before, they took us on a short bamboo raft ride as well in the afternoon. Then on the way back we stopped at an orchid and butterfly farm.

During our last trip to Chiang Mai we drove the loop west through Pai and on towards Mae Hong Son. Here we visited the long necked hilltribe. Then on the return leg we stopped at Doi Inthanon. This time we are driving the loop the other way. We have already spent one week in Chiang Mai and it is time to move on. But would need a month here to see and experience everything properly. The route we are on at present is taking us north-east to Thaton, Doi Mae Salong, Doi Tung (Mae Fa Luang), Mae Sai,  and then down to the Golden Triangle, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan, Phrae and back across to Lampang. We won’t be going back to Chiang Mai but instead we will then head back home via Tak. More about this part of the trip in a few days. As I am writing this it is pouring with rain so hopefully this won’t disrupt our sightseeing tomorrow.


For this trip I took along with me only two guidebooks. (Usually I take at least half a dozen guidebooks.) These were “Chiang Mai & Northern Thailand” written by Joe Cummings for Lonely Planet and the very informative “Exploring Chiang Mai” written by Oliver Hargrave. For road maps to drive here I used “Thailand Road Atlas” published by Lotus Image and “A2Z Atlas of Northern Thailand” published by PN Map. The two city maps I bought were the Nancy Chandler Map of Chiang Mai and the Personal Compact Guide for Chiang Mai. However, once in Chiang Mai it is possible to pick up a variety of free street maps as well as tourist information at the Tourism Authority of Thailand office.

Where is “I kheaw”?

I now live with my mother and my grandmother only in our home sweet home. My mother has always gone to work and my grandmother has always been the one I spend time with the most. My grandmother and I always do activities together such as eating, watching TV, playing cards, exercising (yoga) and, my favorite one, chatting. My grandmother loves and enjoys telling people stories so much so I ask her to tell me some stories sometimes and here is one of those I fancy the most;
“Take the best care of yourself,” were words my grandmother got from her father every time she was about go out.
“Good night and sweet dreams, sweetheart,” were also words full of love and care she got from her father every night but not anymore since he died just after she got married.
When my grandmother first got pregnant, besides her husband who had always been there to take care of her, there was the little dog coming to sleep in front of my granny’s house every day, too. At first, my gramps didn’t give that dog anything but it never went away so my granny decided to look after it. She fed him and named it, “I Kheaw”, according to its pretty green skin which is “Kheaw” in Thai.
Everyday, I Kheaw acted like the guard of the house. When members in the family came home, he was glad, he licked and played with them but if anybody outside the family visited the house, he barked and set himself like he was ready to attack anytime.
Soon, he became the part of the family and then one day, my grandmother gave birth to my aunt. Everyone was so excited and gratified. So was I Kheaw. “He craned through the front door in order to see the newborn,” my granny said, but the baby was mostly in the cradle so he couldn’t see clearly. After my granny felt better and stronger, she held the baby and walked to I Kheaw. She bent down on her knees, “Come, look closely, Kheaw. Isn’t your sister cute?” He barked softly once and walked away. My granny thought he would have gone to play with other dogs in that village so she went back to her bed and rested.
Next morning, both my grandmother and my grandfather couldn’t find I Kheaw anywhere. They were curious where he was but they thought he must have had fun with his little friends somewhere and he didn’t want to come back home yet so they let it go. Days after days, he still never arrived home. My grandmother and grandfather started to be worried. They went out to look for it but never found, “Guess he has been gone for real now,” said grandfather. They walked back home…disappointed.
When her relatives came to see the baby, my granny told them about I Kheaw and one of them said, “He could be someone more than just a dog, don’t you think?”
That sentenced made my granny think. It could be her beloved father who loved her so much. He might want to check the baby out and how her family is doing like he always cared and took care of her via those sweet words and other deeds.
Superficially, you might not get it much but if considering it a little more, you will see something in this strange but touching story. Believe me, those who are already gone are still here, somewhere, protecting, watching and taking care of us. There could be “life after death” as well, who knows?

“A Lot of Thai” – Thai Cooking School

A Lot of Thai

Today I spent an enjoyable day learning how to cook Thai food at the “A Lot of Thai” home cooking class in Chiang Mai. For about a month now I have been trying to decide which Thai cooking school I would attend while on holiday in the north of Thailand. There are about 20 schools in this city and I wanted to help people choose the best value for money course. I did shop around quite a bit. I visited a number of cooking schools, spoke to some of the students and also observed their visits to local markets. I was going to attend a couple of classes before I made my final decision. However, after today, I can unreservedly recommend “A Lot of  Thai” as an excellent choice for a Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai. This should be your first choice of school if you want to learn how to cook Thai food in a homely atmosphere. The school is run by Yui and her husband Kwan. Unlike other schools, Yui doesn’t delegate teaching duties to younger assistants. She not only has excellent Thai culinary skills but she also speaks English with a good accent and with great confidence.

As we had our own transport, we drove ourselves to Yui’s house which is just outside the city center down a quiet soi. Yui greeted us at the front gate and invited us into her house. Kwan had gone out in his VW minivan to pick up the two other students from their hotel and hadn’t come back yet. So we took this opportunity to chat with Yui about her school. She told us that she used to teach at the famous Thai Cookery school for a couple of years. At the same time she attended the local AUA school in the evenings in order to improve her English language skills. In 2001 she married Kwan (they had been dating since 1998) and together decided to open a home cooking school at his parents’ house. A year later their son Sid was born. Kwan quit his graphic designer job in order to support Yui full time. However, he used his skills to produce their excellent brochure and also the Thai Cookbook which they give away for free to every student. There are 29 recipes of popular dishes that they teach at their school. There are also instructions for making curry paste and dips. But the best thing are the18 pages of pictures detailing the ingredients that are used in Thai cooking. I would have bought this cookbook for sure if I had seen it for sale in a book store. (We will be giving a copy of this cookbook away to one lucky reader. Details at the bottom of this page.)

A short while later the other two students arrived and Yui took us through to the kitchen for the first demonstration. Today we cooked six dishes. These were: pad thai, tom yum kung, spring rolls, green curry, stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts and mango with sticky rice. There are four courses you can choose from which are run on different days. This is the popular one which is taught four days a week. The other three courses are run on the three remaining days of the week. Yui will teach the class even if there is only one student. Maximum class size is eight people. Unlike other schools which are run in homes, there is plenty of room for all of the students to stand around the demonstration table. There is also plenty of room between each of the work stations. This is quite important as foreigners are generally larger than Thai people and need plenty of elbow room. Yui said comfort is very important at her school. Although it is Thai custom to sit on the floor to prepare food and even to eat, she knows that not all foreigners find this comfortable. So she prepared spacious workstations with high stalls and a Western style dining room table.

A lot of the ingredients had already been prepared in advance by the grandmother. However, Yui demonstrated how to chop up things like garlic. She showed us  how to chop off one end and then crush it before removing the skin. Then it was finely chopped. All of this was done at her workstation first. Here she showed us how to prepare the ingredients and then how to cook the food. She kept talking the whole time giving us plenty of tips. One tip which I will certainly use is to put the garlic in cold oil first. So may times I have added the garlic to hot oil and before I was ready with other ingredients the garlic was going from a golden brown colour to a burnt colour. This way you have more time. Once the demonstration was over we went back to our workstation to cook the dish ourselves. Yui kept hovering up and down each station making sure we had everything prepared correctly before starting the cooking. If there was something we couldn’t remember then she would quickly help us. Surprisingly, each of the dishes were quite easy and I think everyone ended up cooking some excellent looking dishes. They even looked like the real thing. Even mine!


The brochure says “Please don’t have a big breakfast”. I would say don’t have any breakfast as you will be snacking on  six dishes throughout the day! In the morning we ate pad thai at 10.30 a.m. Then a little while later we sat down to eat the tom yum kung soup. Next came the spring rolls but we were so stuffed by this time that we asked if we could take these home to eat later. At about midday, Yui and Kwan drove us to the local Nong Hoi market. This actually worked out as a nice break from cooking. Most schools do the market visit first thing in the morning. You go with your teacher carrying baskets in order to buy the ingredients for the meals you are going to cook that day. In theory that sounds like a good idea. However, it does means you concentrate on just the dishes you are cooking. Yui had already bought all of the ingredients before the class had begun. This meant she could spend all of the time at the market explaining about the different ingredients.

I have watched six different schools do this part and I can tell you that Yui was the most competent. Her English was un-mistakenly the best which helped a lot. Also, she knew what she was talking about and was happy to answer our questions. Listening to some of the other teachers they sounded like they had memorized a speech. Yui also had a good rapport with the vendors as this was her local market. The other day we had visited Sompet market which was both smaller and inferior. Yet at least six different cooking schools took their students here. I felt sorry for the vendors as there were so many foreigners milling around. I told Yui that she should put in her brochure that she could almost guarantee that you wouldn’t bump into any other foreigners at her local market. However, another group did turn up, but the market was so big and they actually left before we had finished drinking our iced coffee.

I learned a lot at the market. Yui didn’t restrict herself to just the ingredients for what we were cooking that day. She showed us things like the different kinds of rice (her family prefers brown rice as it is more healthy), the different Thai fruit which is in season and how to choose a ripe mango, the large selections of Thai dessert, the numerous kinds of noodles and of course the wide range of vegetables. The different varieties of basil are always confusing but she clearly explained the difference. When we were finished, she telephoned Kwan and he came to pick us up in the VW. We were away for about an hour. The time had gone really quick.


In the afternoon we were taught how to cook three of my favourite dishes. These were green curry, stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts and the wonderful dessert of mango with sticky rice. The above is the result of my work which I am pretty proud about. Once we had finished cooking these three dishes we then sat down at about 2.30 p.m. to eat them. Hopefully you will allow me to say that they were really delicious. Honestly, they were! As it was the end of the course, Yui sat down to chat with us while Kwan cleared the dishes. Actually, that was one of the best things about attending this course. Not only was everything prepared for us, but we were given clean woks and cooking utensils between each dish. I think that if this was any other cooking school the teacher would have kicked us out when the course ended at 3 p.m. However, Yui remained chatting with us for over an hour.

So, how much did this one day class cost? Well consider first that it included a six dish meal. And then there is the cookbook which I would have bought if I had seen it in a bookstore. Then there is the excellent cooking course and of course the visit to the local market. All of this only cost 900 baht (about $27) which was excellent value for money. Yui said that if you ring her or Kwan yourself  she will even give you a 7% discount. Their home number is 053 800724 and mobile number 089 853 9680. Don’t forget, you do not need an agency or your hotel to do this for you as they both speak excellent English. Also, please remember to say “Hi!” from me. I am missing them already.