Monthly Archives: March 2006

Fairground Fun in Ko Lanta

We had escaped the crushing chill of northern Europe and were lapping up the simple beach life, far away from it all at Bamboo Bay on the southern tip of Ko Lanta.
Despite the tropical bliss after a week we felt the need for a little cosmopolitan action and had hitched a ride up to Ban Saladan where you can buy a newspaper, drink an ice-tea and check out the traffic propelling the tanned, the burnt and the lily-white from ferry to resort and back again.
Technically Ban Saladan is still just a village where the ferry docks ( Ko Lanta Old Town to the south-east being the administrative centre) but in reality it’s Ko Lanta’s tourist gold-rush town.
There is a building frenzy going on as it expands southwards along the beach road in order to cope with the thousands of tourists who come to enjoy the island’s golden west coast beaches.
It has the look of a town that’s been built in a hurry, signage bursts out over the busy main road in a haphazard, cartoon way (ATM! Dive shop!, Travel Agent! Pharmacy! Internet Café!)

But because Thailand is not a country of hustlers you can still sit and chat with the locals about the old days when 7-11 was the amount of hours they spent scraping a living.
While it sometimes seemed that the whole place was devoted to dealing with the Farang, we found a small piece that was intent on entertaining the locals.
In a field off the main road Ban Saladan’s Chinese New Year Festival was in full swing.
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Thai Cooking Classes in Chiang Mai

One of the main reasons I am in Chiang Mai at the moment is to check out the situation of Thai cookery classes. I not only wanted to attend a couple of classes for my own benefit, but I also wanted to write some reviews for the website. I had done most of my research in advance. On the Internet I had discovered that there were at least 15 cooking schools in Chiang Mai alone. In comparison, I think Bangkok only has two or three. Before I left I wrote emails to all of the schools asking if I could visit them to take pictures. Only five schools bothered to write back to me. These were: A Lot of Thai, Thai Farm Cooking School, Air’s Thai Culinary Kitchen, Chiangmai Thai Cookery School and Gap’s Culinary Art School.

Once I had arrived in Chiang Mai I did some more research. First I checked out the free magazine to see if any of the schools were established enough to take out advertising. I only found two adverts: Chiangmai Thai Cookery School and Baan Thai. Apparently, these were the first and second school respectively that were established in Chiang Mai. All of the other schools just seemingly jumped on the bandwagon. I next visited the Tourist Authority of Thailand. Here I found an excellent brochure made by the cooking school A Lot of Thai. It was really nicely done with beautiful pictures of the dishes and a handy map of Chiang Mai. The person at the information desk handed me a list of cookery schools which has now added a few more to my already long list.

Next I visited a few of the Tour Agencies. There must be hundreds of these in Chiang Mai. If you want to book treks, elephant rides, bus tickets, dinner theatre tickets etc., then you won’t have much trouble.  These agencies are like 7–Eleven and you will find them on almost every corner! Although these agencies acknowledge that there are other cooking schools, they are always trying to push you into signing up for their favorite school. The name “Pad Thai” came up a few times. It is really difficult to know how sincere these people are. Are these schools genuinely the best or are these just the ones that pay out the highest commission.? Most courses seem to be around the 800–900 baht figure. However, I hear that some greedy agencies can demand up to 250 baht commission per person. To counteract that, I saw on some brochures and adverts that they say you should ring the schools directly and not go through an agency. Some even offer you a discount if you do that.

This morning, I went to visit Sompet Market as I had heard this was a good place to buy fresh produce. I was mainly going to take pictures rather than buy anything. You will find this market on the eastern side of the old city close to the moat. By the time we arrived it was 10 a.m. and there weren’t that many people around. I was the only foreigner there and there were probably about a dozen or so Thai customers. I wandered around taking a few pictures of ingredients and people shopping. Then I spotted a group of foreigners arriving. They were all carrying shopping baskets. I then realized that this must be one of the local cooking schools bringing their students to the market for a visit. I went closer to see what the teacher was saying. She was explaining about the different vegetables. There were about six students in the class. I tapped one on the shoulder and asked what cookery school he was attending. He gave me a blank look and then turned to his friend. I thought maybe they didn’t understand my question but it turned out that they had no idea!

A short while later another group of foreigners turned up with their Thai teacher. Then another and another and another. We were there about 30 minutes and in total I counted six groups! I am not joking when I say that the foreigners were now outnumbering the Thai customers. We did our best to listen to what the teachers were saying and also to find out what school they came from. Most of the teachers were young and their English wasn’t really that good. They had a strong accent and no confidence. Some didn’t seem to say much and others seemed to say too much! During my research, I got the impression that the teachers were all very experienced and were quite often the owners of the schools. But now it was starting to look like that they were sometimes passing the classes onto younger, less experienced people.

Baan Thai

One of the schools that was sending their students to Sompet Market was Baan Thai. I was impressed with their website and was keen to visit. But, I was disappointed that they never bothered to reply to my email. With so much competition I think it is really important that they have an Internet presence. But, maybe they didn’t need to worry, as like their brochure proudly boasts, that they are “recommended by Lonely Planet”. But that means nothing. From experience, once these places get themselves featured in LP they then never bother to improve their business. As Baan Thai didn’t seem to be far away we decided to go and take a look for ourselves.

We found the cookery school down a narrow soi that was really only wide enough for a car and a half. It was a quiet soi but it looked like that many of the private houses had now been turned into guesthouses or restaurants. Parking was a real problem for us but I guess most of their clientele are backpackers and they would be walking. The funny thing is, we counted four cooking schools here alone! It looked like that everyone fancied themselves as cooks and teachers. It was a bit like them saying, “Well if my neighbour can do it then so can I!”. So, they bought a few cooking stations and put up a lean-to around the back for the classroom. Simple really.

I was really hoping that Baan Thai was going to be more than just a cooking school that operated round the back of someone’s house. I was impressed with their advertising and website. I had heard they were the second cooking school in Chiang Mai. But, to be honest, I was a little disappointed. The pictures on their web site had made everything look so spacious. But, it wasn’t. We inquired whether the owner was at home but was told that she was away. It didn’t look like she taught any more. The front room had a low table where the students could sit on the floor and eat their creations. Around the back we found the students in the middle of a lesson. There were only four of them. They seemed happy though I felt that the teacher seemed a little unsure of herself. Maybe she hadn’t had much experience yet.

When you come to pick a school you need to decide whether you want the small personal touch from a school run in a family home or a more professional school that can have 20 in a class. I like the idea of a family run school. But, the owner would also have to be the teacher. Once that person delegates their work to other people then that place loses the personal touch. Tomorrow I will be attending my first cookery class. I have chosen A Lot of Thai partly because it has small classes taught by the owner, but also because the husband of the teacher was so chatty in his several emails to me. I will let you know later how I got on with this class.

A Thai Funeral


We came back from the beach in the early evening. Like any Thai event, the first thing that we were asked when we arrived was whether we had eaten yet. The truth is that we had eaten plenty on the beach all afternoon. But, these were only snacks and we still had some room for a proper meal with rice. A few minutes after we had finished eating, the chanting started in the main assembly hall and we went in to take some pictures. This went on like this for about an hour or so. There weren’t that many people here on the first day. Most people were coming down from Bangkok for the main event on the second day. Not everyone was wearing the black mourning clothes but rather normal clothes with muted colours.

After the chanting had finished, everyone filed outside for the fireworks. First a display was set alight which showed the name of the deceased. Then little fires beneath floating lanterns were lit so that they would float up and away into the sky. Then finally a fireworks show. Nothing too spectacular but a number of the local people had come to watch. That is the thing about funerals. There is always plenty of free entertainment, so it attracts crowds of people. It doesn’t really matter if they knew the family or not. There was already quite a few mobile food stalls and people were sitting down having a meal.

At funerals, the main entertainment is usually either a khon masked drama or a likay. At this one, we were entertained with a likay, which is a bit like an outdoor variety show. It has short sketches, singing and some banter between actors and audience. I have shown you pictures of this before. The people wear a lot of make-up and are dressed in these amazingly colourful costumes that sparkle. For events like funerals it doesn’t really matter if no-one comes to watch or not as it is really put on for the benefit of the deceased. But, on this night, a lot of local people came to watch the free show.


The majority of the mourners arrived the following morning from about 11 a.m. onwards. At about this time, there was another session of chanting and then the monks were given food to eat. Monks can never ask for, or prepare their own food. They cannot even store food for longer thana day. It always has to be offered to them by lay people. Once this was done, there was nothing for us to do again until the cremation ceremony in the late afternoon. So, we had some more free time. We decided to go back into Cha-am to do more sightseeing. I will tell you about this later.

By about 4 p.m., the main assembly hall was packed with people. There were even rows of seats outside. The ceremony started with a sermon from a monk. Once he had finished about 80 or so monks entered the hall. I had never seen so many. The person who had died must have either been well respected or very rich. The more monks that come to chant the more merit that is made for the deceased. But, it also costs a lot more. When they leave, each monk is given a white envelope with some money inside. They are also presented with some robes. Do you see the tape in the above photograph? I have never seen like this before. It was all rolled up in a contraption and then unrolled from one end to the other. Women are not usually allowed to present anything to monks directly. The monk would normally first put down a small piece of cloth for the woman to put the offering on. However, in this case, the robes were put on this tape. I think it is acting like the sai sin string where it becomes a collective offerring.


The next part of the ceremony was also very interesting. What happened was that family members and important dignitaries took turns in placing some robes on a pedestal in front of the coffin. A monk would then come up to receive these robes. I thought it was a way for the deceased person to make merit by giving robes to the monks. But, someone later told me that in the old days it was common practice for the monks to take the rags from dead bodies to make a robe. Although they no longer need to do this, it has now become an important part of the funeral ceremony.


When I didn’t realize at first was that the crematorium at this temple was actually attached to the main hall. In fact it is directly behind the display on the stage that you can see in my earlier photos. Also unknown to me, by this time the coffin had already been taken from the table behind the floral display and placed inside the oven. As soon as the robe giving part of the ceremony had finished, the senior dignitary came up on to the stage and lit a long flower made from wood shavings. He then put this into the oven. Then everyone else rushed to the stage where they were given a small flower also made from wood shavings, called dok mai jan, which they threw into the oven. I have never seen like this before. At other funerals I have been to, the dok mai jan is symbolically placed under the coffin as you file past. It is like you are adding fuel to the fire. But, in this case the fire (and probably the body) was already alight. As the people went down the steps on the other side they were given a small book which commemorated the life of the deceased. At other funerals you might be given a souvenir. At the same time as this was happening, three very loud rockets were shot up into the sky to signal the start of the cremation.

That was basically it. We returned home shortly afterwards. On the way back home, we stopped on the highway just before Phetchaburi in order to buy some of the famous Thai desserts for this area. The most famous of course is khanom mor gaeng which I told you about before. The traffic going back was pretty bad and it took nearly four hours to reach Samut Prakan. Two days later I set off on my trip to Chiang Mai in the north. That is where I am now writing this blog. I will be writing about this shortly.

Old Patong:Thai Boxing[1979]

California Jim’s voice rang out loudy from the big speaker attached to the pickup truck, Jim was hawking “Thai Boxing In Phuket”, selling tickets and getting farangs/tourists/locals/expats to buy a ticket for the nights big main event!

Local goodguy and Thai Lightweight Champion Owan Pedit was fighting and defending the Thai Championship in Phuket town vs an up and coming challenger from Ko Samui.

We had met “Wan”, his dear wife Pui and their little child Lek while he was working for Mr Bruce at Paradise Bar/Bungalows.

Wan was even tempered, always sporting a big smile, Mr Bruce had put up a small gym in the back of the bar where patrons would often workout.

Watching the Champ workout was a pleasure to see how a real Thai boxer, let alone, a Champion worked so dilligently, the sweat running off his heavily muscled torso as he beat and kicked at the huge bag hanging in the middle of Mr Bruces “ring”…

Betting was heavy in favor of the Champ, with little regard to the challenger, after all, he wasn’t from Bangkok or even Phuket, but Ko Samui!

Samai had negociated with the local BahtBus to take a full load into town and see the extravaganza, after hanging out all day at Thai Garden or Paradise, we had figured out how the match should go.

Arriving around 7PM, we were early, the fights didn’t start til 8PM and the main event wasn’t til 10PM, we loitered in the stands.

Samai had gotten us really great front row seats, we felt like VIP’s. I noticed that one section off the ring was enclosed with barbed wire. I inquired and Samai told us that was the bookie area and they had to fence it off cause there could be “pan-ha” depending on who won or lost bets or fights!

We were all excited, our first Thai boxing match and with a local friend too boot, it was a double pleasure!

The little stadium quickly filled up, the announcements for the fights, the preliminary fights began.

Watching the boxers do some type of ritual, all dressed in their totally cool Thai boxing shorts and wearing some type of head band[?], the first round was set:

Being used to watching conventional boxing since childhood, I was amazed that the boxers could grab, knee, kick and elbow any and all areas of the opponents body.

During the 3rd fight, things got a little out of hand in the stadium, as many of the “fans”[losing bettors]tried to climb over the fense and get at the bookies, but Phukets finest quickly entered the ring, firing off an M16[upward into the sky]and things quickly settled down!

Samai gave a short explanation as the fight progressed, telling us who to bet on, we either took his advice or didn’t, we knew nothing about any of the fighters, outside of the Champion, but by the end of the evening, Samai had lost more than he’d won, I got lucky and picked 4 of 6, including the main event, our Pal Wan successfully defended his Title with a swift kick to the opponents jaw, in the second round, the helpless challenger dropped like a rock!

We waited around til Wan was dressed and ready to leave, we carried him on our shoulders to the bus and the Mekhong was flowing like water on the way back to Patong Beach, where we partied into the wee hours, naturally Wan couldn’t buy a drink!

This was the last time Wan defended the title in Phuket, he later dropped the title while defending it in Surat Thani. Wan never fought professionally again, but continued to work for Mr Bruce at Paradise.

Sitting at Paradise bar late one night, there was a big foreigner who wanted to “fight” as he sat surly at the bar, Mr Bruce motioned for Wan to take the guy into the gym and show him a few moves, we all went into the gym and watched as Wan spun around a lightning back leg kick, almost knocking the bag from the chain that it hung from! The big guys eyes suddenly became WIDE open as he watched the seemingly small man work over the bag like a tornado, elbows, fists, knees, and feet flying up and down the helpless bag, the big Farang wisely went back into the bar and settled down.

Over the years, Wan and his family became close and cherished friends of ours. Wan could always be counted on to do his best at what ever he did, you don’t become Worlds Champion by taking things half-way!

Here are a few pix, two of the Title fight and one of Wan and his family at Paradise.

Over the years we’d watch many Muay Thai fights as well as convention matches, usually at Crazy Daves Thai Garden, sometimes at Paradise, but always with our buddy Wan side by side!

Starbucks v.s. Ta Bak

Coffee culture doesn’t just arrive in Bangkok when the first Starbucks store opened. It has always been here. On the street. In a cart.

Starbucks may have the fancy flavor syrups. Creamy streamed milk foaming up to the brim. Luscious whipped cream topped ice blended sweet concoction. And the portable status symbol in the form of the green circle emblazoned cups.

But it’s Ta Bak (Grandpa Bak) that has the soul.

Gaafae Boran –“ancient coffee” or traditional coffee as it is referred to nowadays—is brewed daily on the sidewalks all over the country by many vendors like Ta Bak.

Behind a big pot of boiling water, an aging brewmaster wields the brew bag made out of cheese cloth and wire frame with his hands, stained by the color of tea and coffee he’s been brewing all these years. Day after day, he toils away over a boiling pot of water in a country where the temperature is hot enough without adding more steam to it. With well-honed skills, Ta Bak, and others like him, creates a perfect cup of coffee or tea daily. One glass at time.

And you call those sissies behind the counter, banging the grounds out of an espresso machine, and holding pitcher of milk up to a steamer a barista? Puh-lease.

Traditional Thai coffee and tea and be served up in all sorts of different ways. (I vaguely remember someone already post about this so I’m not going to dwell too much on it.) Coffee/tea with sugar. With sweetened condensed milk. With sugar and ice. With condensed milk and ice. And so on.

The menu at Ta Bak may not be as extensive as Starbucks with its gazillion variety of triple shot, half-caf(feinated), non-fat, little foam, caramel, mocha Frappucino with lots of whipped cream, or is it as trendy.

But with the money you could buy a cup there you can treat 2 other friends to Gaafae Boran!

I must admit that as much as I try to avoid supporting Starbucks, once in a while the convenience wins out and I succumb to the same fate as most Americans, lumbering downstairs into a conveniently located Starbucks and pay around $5 for a cup of creamy caramel-y goodness. (If I can help it, I usually drag myself over to Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at the end of the block). Hey, I love tasty treats so I am guilty! I even homed into the round green beacon in Bangkok a few times over my last visit.

But face it. At the end of the day, it’s not Starbucks I crave. It’s a freshly brewed glass from the street. (Well, nowadays, more like out of a beverage service in a food court, but you know what I mean.)

Thai culture steeps in our traditional beverage almost quite literally. And now it’s representing us all over the world in the form of Thai iced tea and Thai iced coffee which are quickly becomimng the new favorites everywhere around the world.

So, down with you, Starschmucks! You can never takeover OUR coffee culture.

…I hope.