Through My Eyes

Timing was everything.

Archive for November 2009

Surviving Phnom Penh

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In Phnom Penh, anything goes. That is when you’re on the road.

Because we only have two days here, we decided to rent bikes again and ride through the city to see more of the daily life. The traffic is like nothing I have seen. Almost got my left foot run over by ruthless motorbikes twice yesterday. There is traffic coming and going from every direction. People do not obey traffic lights as a rule. It’s chaos.

Walking along the busy street beside the river is mesmerizing. Makes you think of France, although you wouldn’t see as many monks walking by, sun-darkened street children selling questionably-safe-to-drink bottled water, desperate tuk tuk drivers hollering at you from every corner. We’ve definitely seen a lot more fried bugs being sold as snacks than during the beginning of this trip.

Wendy has earned a new nickname. It’s the Toilet Paper Burglar (sort of like the Hamburglar from McDonalds). Because we’re staying in somewhat of a roach motel (it’s really not that bad) and the bathroom never has toilet paper, she has resorted to stealing toilet paper everywhere we go. She’ll get this look in her eyes as we eat dinner, finish up, go into the bathroom and come out with a whole roll in her bag. It’s hilarious. Do they have support groups for that?

Anyway, we went to a place called Friends The Restaurant for dinner last night. Not your typical Kmer restaurant and they really just serve tapas as opposed to super traditional Cambodia cuisine, but honestly, what a great concept for a food establishment. The staff consists of former street children taken in to be cared for, mentored, and educated and trained to become part of the Friends staff. Re-integration with their families and communities is this NGO’s key objective. Good food, good cause, excellent service from the attentive staff. It’s a win-win situation for everyone. Check it out if you’re planning to go to Phnom Penh. (We went on a Saturday night and had to wait only 5-10 min. with no reservations.)

We’re meeting back up with Nate in Siem Reap tomorrow. Looking for a photography workshop and possible homestay in that region since my visa for Vietnam isn’t valid until Dec. 11th. Wendy leaves for Phuo Quoc on the 2nd, so it’s goodbye soon.

*Here are some of the photographs I took at the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh and at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Somber settings and reminders of the dark past Cambodians have had to endure…


Written by winniewongsf

November 29, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Walk like Elephant

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Wendy did good. Really good.

We ended up spending the last ten hours tending to individual elephants (Champu and Buchan) at Patara Elephant Farm about 30 min. from Chiang Mai. I cannot say enough positive things about Pat and his wife who run the farm and manage the breeding and health care of the 19 creatures that live there. To learn more about their mission and how they are accomplishing these goals, please please visit:

Not only will you walk away with a new found love and respect for these animals, you get a slice of education on Thai history, economics, and politics, as well as an understanding of why it would be wise to “walk like elephant, eat like elephant, and live like elephant.” (For those who do not want to get their hands dirty, look elsewhere, as you will be inspecting elephant poo as part of the day’s work…)

Was a great experience, and I’m grateful Wendy found a responsible organization that wants to do the right thing.

Written by winniewongsf

November 27, 2009 at 11:13 am

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Chiang Mai

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Due to her natural knack for planning, Wendy has officially taken charge of our daytime activities in Chiang Mai for the rest of this week. We went zip-lining for the first time through Flight of the Gibbons, and now that I have done it, I know I could zipline all day without getting sick of it. Laughing hysterically, Wendy and I zoomed through a lush green rainforest just an hour north of Chiang Mai (near Mae Kompong). We spent a few hours doing this alongside a really good-humored young pair of newlyweds on their honeymoon from Brisbane, a cute elderly couple from Melbourne, a girl from Holland, and another pair of sisters from Chicago and Phoenix. Because our guides, Mr. B and Chaiyo, were so laid back and kept cracking jokes the entire time, it was hard not to have a fantastic time.

This rainforest is privately-owned land, and the man that started Flight of the Gibbons is from New Zealand. Part of the guide was learning about the various tea trees that grow on the land and the hard work that goes into collecting honey from some of the trees by the forest inhabitants. It’s a forest that seems very well maintained, and according to their website, Flight of the Gibbons supports ecological education programs and funds a re-planting program to preserve Thailand’s native trees. Approximately 10% of their profits go toward rainforest rehabilitation and protecting the rare Gibbon ape. If interested and in the region, check out their website: Pretty sure they have a branch near Pattaya and Bangkok, as well.

Tomorrow morning, we’re heading back to the jungle, but this time to ride elephants. I know, I know. It’s touristy…ugh. But, I’m hoping the agency my sister booked is at least part of an organization that helps sustain safe and healthy environments for these creatures. That’s being optimistic; we’ll see what we find. Tomorrow night should be interesting. Going to a local hangout called The Writer’s Club and Wine Bar. Apparently, it’s popular with local writers and journalists, especially on Friday nights. It’s somewhat of a press club, so I’m sure we’ll meet some colorful people there.

Over the last few months, several friends have teased me about the detail going into my posts. The reason why I list and name in so much detail is because I know people are going to ask for recommendations on things to do, places to go, and things to eat when they come to visit this region. I only feel that it’s my duty to document as much as I can while I am here. When I studied in Siena and Hong Kong during my junior year of college, I hardly wrote anything in my journal, let alone was able to recall some of the names of places I stayed and ate at when my friends asked me upon returning back to the states. It’s a shame because sometimes your memories do fade and your mind will fail you. I hope to look back on this trip, maybe when I’m old and grey, and be able to pull up vivid images of the experiences I’m having now at 26. Actually, I hope to always be open to doing something new and different even when I’m walking with a cane.

Written by winniewongsf

November 26, 2009 at 6:15 am

A different Thailand

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For those that have never been to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, it’s worth planning a trip as the city is so different from Bangkok and the islands of the south. It actually feels like a real town with quaint little neighborhoods and actual space to walk on the sidewalks. Lazy mornings spent grazing the city center’s markets, young monks in vibrant tangerine robes walking to and from the temples, dragonflies and white butterflies flitting above the Mekong Delta, food huts standing on the side of dirt roads…this is the Thailand I’ve been waiting to see. (Funny thing is we have 5 different city maps and not one version seems to be accurate. Wendy decided today that we need to present the city with an edited consolidated version of their maps. I couldn’t agree more.)

We arrived early yesterday evening and took it easy, finding a hole in the wall to grab dinner. Since nothing was in English and Chiang Rai does not seem to cater to many tourists, we just agreed on whatever our server mentioned. What we should have done, in retrospect, is ask for kow soi, the curry noodle dish/soup this region is known for. Lesson learned as we were served American-style Thai friend rice.

This morning, we rented mountain bikes from Fat Free Bikes (for 200 baht/person) and started the day by riding through the residential neighborhoods. What a beautifully old and historic town. The roads are fairly flat, and the ride was just what we were looking for. We waited for a herd of cows to cross the road, smiled at old wrinkly women wearing long sleeves and sweaters in 80 degree heat, greeted shop owners holding their toddlers with “Sawahdeekah,” and tried not to get ourselves killed riding on the left side of the road. We also found Chiang Rai beach which actually sits on the side of the Mekong river and does not look like a beach at all. I was surprised to find that there were only three or four other people there on such a gorgeous day. It’s always pleasant when you go somewhere in Thailand and find that it hasn’t been overly developed or commercialized. Rare, but pleasant.
Tomorrow, after we return our bikes and find the best kow soi in Chiang Rai, we’re getting back on the Green Bus and heading south to Chiang Mai to spend the rest of the week. Looking forward to spending more time outside breathing in the lush air and being active.

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November 24, 2009 at 11:09 am

The food tour of Thailand continues…

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This morning, Wendy and I woke up early to go to our Thai cooking class. Originally, Nate was to join us, however, when one goes out the previous night and meets a group of local university students who praise you if you can pound a full cup of Singha and challenge you to drinking “towers,” one might not feel well the next morning. Especially since one of the young students we befriended, Jay, took us dancing afterward at RCA district and to Sukhumvit’s Soi 38 where we all consumed the most delicious dishes of chicken and rice and bowls of BBQ pork noodle soups at 3 in the morning. I had Jay ask the vendor if he could give me a little of the spicy gravy to take with me and he ended up giving me a bagful that I now do not know what to do with. Are you allowed to take a bag of gravy through customs at the Bangkok airport? Guess we’ll find out tomorrow when we leave for Chiang Mai.

Our worldly young instructor met us at a Skytrain station, and we proceeded to pick up 5 other students, all of whom were from Austrailia, UK, and the States. He walked us over to a produce/meat/fish market in the Silom district and educated us about all of the ingredients we would be using today. We spent time sniffing and eye-ing everything as he threw various bunches of leaves, handfuls of mushrooms, bags of colorful dried chilies into our weaved baskets. Then, we walked over to where I assume he lives and were welcomed into a studio where small wooden tables were set up, along with a small prep area in the back and individual stove stations stood on the open air balcony. The class required us to clean and prep the fresh vegetables, grind the ingredients for curry paste, and actually cook (and eat immediately upon completion) 5 different dishes. They were: Chicken Galangal Coconut Soup (Tom Kha Gai), Chicken with Cashew Nut (Gai Phad Med Ma Muang), Spicy Mungbean Noodle Salad (Yam Woon Sen), Red Curry Chicken (Kaeng Phet Gai), and Fried Fish Cakes (Thod Mun Pla). After the first two entrees, Wendy and I hit a wall. Not only were we already full from the food, but I think lack of sleep from the previous night was catching up to us. Overall, each dish turned out incredibly flavorful and was a reminder that it just takes fresh and quality produce/ingredients to make a simple meal mind-blowing.

Our instructor leads a pretty rough life. He works just a few hours (9am-1pm) during each weekday instructing anywhere from 3-14 people (all paying approx. 1000 baht per lesson), meets people from all over the world who sign up to take his courses and are there wanting to learn, and travels every summer for three months out of the year. Wendy and I did the math after we left his apartment and decided that he is doing really well for a Thai native.

What was great was that he was a very engaging instructor, and it was a very interactive lesson in traditional Thai cooking. I felt like we definitely picked a great cooking course taught by an instructor who has a lot of knowledge to share, is not afraid to throw in sarcastic jokes at your expense, and genuinely enjoys what he does for a living. Out of 5 stars, I give it a 4.

Hope Nate goes later this week since he’s staying here for a few days after we leave.

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November 22, 2009 at 7:52 am

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And who says Three’s a Crowd?

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As I am now in the (good) company of my sister and friend, I find that I have less time to write.

We’re currently (back) in Bangkok – arrived on Thursday. On the first day that Wendy arrived, we were able to check out Wat Po and get Thai traditional massages at the Massage School within the temple grounds. I had a crick in my neck from sleeping on the Lomprayah bus the previous night and thought the massage woould do wonders. Wow. Have you ever gotten a traditional Thai massage? They are no joke. The way your pressure points are kneaded like raw dough…let’s just say it was not like the oil massage I fell asleep during in Koh Tao. It was a very cool experience, albeit the pain. You take a number as you walk in and wait to be called into a room full of people (mostly tourists) who are contorted into various yogic positions. My new friend, Wow, whom we met up for dinner last night said it the best, ” It’s like yoga for lazy people.”

That same night, we were able to catch the Thursday night Muay Thai line up at the Ratchadamnoen Boxing stadium. We decided on mid-range seats that cost 1500 baht/person (less than $50). Even the most economical tickets were surprisingly expensive at 1000 baht, especially if you’re on a Thai payroll. The first match started at 6:30pm and the 10th, or last, match ended after 10. You can buy snacks and beer (a bit overpriced) once inside, but the array of street food vendors right outside the stadium was spectacular. There’s also an outdoor covered patio where you can grab seats and a table to enjoy your meal, as well.

The matches were pretty entertaining. The youngest boys looked about the age of 15 or 16, and they were in incredible shape. Whatever their daily diet or rigorous training regime, I plan to follow (or at least attempt to follow) once back in SF. We’ll see how that goes…

I took a good number of pictures of the first few boxing matches, but since it takes such a long time to post, I think I’ll save that for another time. The hostel we are staying at Suk11 in Sukhumvit (which I highly recommend!) has only one downfall. Their internet service is dependent on this little machine that you insert 10 baht coins into, and it controls your access. I find it not as convenient as just paying the front desk for however many minutes you’re online. Oh well. Every other feature this hostel offers is pretty great, so I’m not going to complain.

Tonight, the three of us are heading to the different beer gardens at Central World near Siam Square. According to Wow, and evidence we witnessed walking by last night, during the winter months when the heat is actually bearable, outdoor beer gardens are set up featuring Chang, Singha, Tiger, and a few other German beers. There are live bands playing Thai as well as international cover music playing at each station, and you are encouraged to order “towers” of beer, accompanied by small Thai dishes throughout the night. It looked like a great time from what we saw, so we are definitely looking forward to checking it out tonight.

Running out of time, but I will be posting up pictures of Bangkok soon, hopefully before we leave for Chiang Mai on Monday morning.

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November 21, 2009 at 9:00 am

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Anthony Bourdain would have been proud

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After my second session of Muay Thai yesterday, Bang, the trainer I’ve been working with, invited me over for dinner at the gym. Apparently he and the other trainers eat and sleep there, calling it their home. Of course, I accepted and agreed to meet them later that night. Not knowing what to expect, I brought along a handful of Chang and Singha beers and showed up promptly at 7:30. In the middle of the training mat we had just trained on earlier that day, there was a small bamboo mat, and Jimmy, Samat, and Bang were running around bringing a number of fragrant, colorful dishes out from the kitchen and setting them onto the mat. The front desk receptionist and another elderly man both joined us on the mat as we sat cross-legged for the family style meal, and I swear, it was straight out of a No Reservations episode.

Before Choam (the receptionist) and I started scooping rice onto the men’s plates, a black wasp about the size of my thumb flew straight into my head and got stuck in my hair. Not wanting to cause a scene, I tried to brush it off with my hand. Bang decided to take matters into his own hands (literally) and grabbed it and threw it across the courtyard. It never bothered me again.
We proceeded to dig into the 7 traditional dishes Bang prepared all by himself. I asked him how long it took him to cook everything, and astonishingly, he replied “half hour.” Over the course of an hour, we ate: a dish of beef in yellow curry, bittermelon and vegetables in red curry, minced pork with fried holy basil, garlic, and chilies (my new favorite), a fried whole fish, soup with melon and chicken similar to one my mom makes, spicy garlic and pepper fish, and an egg omelet. No surprise, but it was by far the best Thai meal I’ve ever had. Although my hosts spoke minimal English and my command of Thai is pathetic, I’m pretty sure they knew how much I enjoyed the meal seeing that I finished the entire heap of food on my plate. What surprised me, though, was the fact that they throw out leftovers instead of keeping it for the next day. I tried to say that it seemed like such a waste, but my Thai-English dictionary failed me, and I had to use hand gestures to try to discourage them from throwing away the food. They laughed and said, “Tomorrow buy again.” For people who are not making a lot money, they sure were okay with throwing away good food. It was really hard for me to understand.

After dinner, Jimmy, Samat, and Bang wanted to play poker, so I sat with my beer and observed. Watching them play a version I’d never seen before, I had a hard time making sense of the game no matter how intently I watched and followed their motions. They played for another hour before we decided to head down to Chalok Baan Kao to check out what Bang called a “free hill concert by Esan people.” We hopped on their motorbikes and rode up to what would have been considered a carnival or a fair in the States. It seemed like the entire population of Koh Tao was at this fair, minus any tourists or foreigners. There was a group performing and dancers on the stage, but the guys wanted to go straight to the games section of the fairground. That’s when I realized that Thai men are gamblers. Bang refused to leave the table where he was spending thousands and thousands of baht. After an hour, he had us hold his spot so he could run to the ATM for more money. From what I could tell, the game he was playing was no different from a Roulette table in Vegas. I was shocked at how nonchalantly he was willing to drop his week’s earnings on what I consider a game of luck. As much as I wanted to discourage him, I knew he was a grown man (31, actually), and it was up to him on how he wanted to spend his money. After a little while longer, I knew it was time for me to go, so I asked Jimmy’s friend to take me back to Sairee Village. They probably thought I was square for turning in early, but really, I just didn’t want to spend any more money losing on these games and was in a serious food coma from the feast.

At the end of the day, I’m glad I accepted Bang’s invitation to hang out with him and his “family.” I’m grateful that they accepted me, a stranger, into their home for dinner and am so appreciative of the effort they made to make sure I was comfortable and entertained throughout the night. I just wish I spoke Thai so that I could fully express the gratitude I feel, but I guess I’ll just have to count on the faith that they already know. I plan on bringing Nate into the gym to introduce him to the guys once he arrives in Koh Tao, as I’m positive he’ll want to do some training during his time here. Until then, I’m going to try and score those recipes from Bang so I can give the dishes a try in my own kitchen at home.

Written by winniewongsf

November 15, 2009 at 6:06 am

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