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Chinese New Year Lunch Issan Food Stalls Dinner with Students

Written: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Bonnie and Carol s Nongkhai adventures continued (Carol writing today).

Time is passing quickly for us here. The weeks rush by, filled with teaching, studying Thai (a bit of a hopeless task for me), emailing home, keeping our journals and pictures up-to-date, going to aerobics, hand-washing our endless laundry, shopping, and, most important, spending time with our students and Thai friends. It has been our good fortune to become part of the community here. The very hospitable Thais invite us everywhere, to their homes for dinner, to local events, and to trips around the NE region. What we envisioned as lazy weekends have instead become filled with full-on Thai road trips complete with lots of Issan food (the cuisine of NE Thailand).

Issan food is not what you find in American Thai restaurants. Some of the most popular dishes here are som-taam, a VERY spicy salad consisting mainly of chopped green papaya, garlic, and lots of hot chilies; kai-ping best described as eggs-on-a-stick which have had the insides blown out and mixed with water, salt, and hot black pepper, then somehow refilled, the whole thing boiled, put on a stick and barbecued; and lots of hot-sour soup-ey dishes with (for us) unidentifiable ingredients. Bonnie, who has a life-long aversion to eggs, cringes when the kai-ping are urged on us. We have a pact-I eat the eggs for her and she eats the som-taam for me. All of the dishes are eaten with sticky rice. You take a wad of sticky rice from a basket, then use it to pick up something from one of the food dishes. A very communal way of dining and always done while sitting on mats.

A trio of our students recently invited us to their new house for dinner. This was the typical Issan meal but the special treat of the evening was a big bag of snails which Bonnie and I subtly ignored. Nothing like seeing a delicate little Thai girl loudly and gustily slurping snails out of their shells. So, though it wasn t our favorite food and our legs cramped after a few hours of sitting on the floor, we felt quite privileged to be their first house guests, and it s always nice to know that even old ladies are welcomed into the young students lives.

Besides the meals, we have to mention snacks. The Thais, so attractive and slim, eat all the time! Roadsides in Nongkhai (as in every town and village) are lined with food stalls selling a vast array of food. It s always interesting to bike down a road trying to choose a restaurant/ food shop. We re never sure: is it someone s house and they re just eating dinner? Is it a workshop and the workers are sitting down to a communal meal? And if is a real food stall, are they open and what do they serve? The menus (if there are any) are in Thai script which Bonnie is working on but I ve determined I haven t sufficient brain cells to tackle.

Saleelikathat Wat Front of a Thai Bus Nighttime at Wat That Phanom

The past three weekends have been our now typical travel-and-eat marathons. We never seem to grasp what the trip will involve or how we re being transported; we just go and let it all unfold. First it was Vientiane, Laos, just across the river from Nongkhai (great French food!); the next weekend a trip to Sakorn Nakhon province by car with our neighbor, a trip that involved many stops including the very interesting world heritage site of Ban Chieng and then a secluded hilltop wat-very quiet except for the bands of screeching monkeys running around begging for food; and this past weekend a LONG trip with some of our students to the most holy pilgrimage site in Thailand, That Phanom.

This last journey was the most interesting-not always fun exactly, but interesting. Though we didn t know the destination (we were only told we were going to Nakorn Phanom province) we knew it was hundreds of kilometers away. Imagine our surprise when we were picked up at school in an old converted pickup truck, a conveyance they call a sawngthaew -2 hard benches along the sides and a canvas cover propped up with some lightweight metal bars. Thirteen of us were crammed into the back, the ones on the end hanging on tight. Some of you may know that I have a slight traffic phobia, so the thought of traveling for hours in the back of a pickup truck (in less than traffic-safety-conscious Thailand) was not my idea of a great weekend. After traveling an hour or so we turned off on a dirt road and found out that we were stopping at a student s village home for lunch. A few hours later, we took a walk down the road only to discover that a real bus was picking us up there. What a relief! We joined about 30 other pilgrims on the bus and were off to That Phanom.

We arrived at sunset to a village full of thousands of people and their assorted conveyances. This is a special Buddhist week (related to the lunar cycle) and people come from all over Thailand to pray at this site. We got our incense sticks and flowers, then joined the crowd, walking three times around the inner temple, doing our wais, and getting blessed, all to the accompaniment of chanting monks, parades of drummers, and the inevitable loudspeakers.

After paying homage and taking photos, we strolled through the massive night market, ate, went to the bathhouse (interesting), and then to bed in our bus. It was not a comfortable sleep. People were camped all around, many of them up all night, singing and beating drums around campfires. In the bus, a number of ladies had loud conversations from about 1:30 to 3:30. At 4:30 AM the lights came on and we were off on the 5-hour trip to our next destination, a hilltop wat in Roi Et province. The day was surprisingly cold and windy as we climbed to the top of the wat, then ventured into the surrounding forest to get some rice for breakfast--lots of food vendors, some musicians, babies sleeping in hammocks, families sitting on mats eating. All we really wanted was a cup of coffee (not a chance). The trip continued to the town of Mukdahan where a new bridge to Laos is being built, then to another holy and ancient wat, back to the village for dinner, and finally home by, once again, my favorite- the sawngthaew.

Today is a Buddhist holy day-no school-so we are being very relaxed, laughing over pictures of last weekend, and getting ready to go to Wat Po Chai tonight for a big traditional celebration. We are feeling very sabai and happy to be here.

Breakfast in the Forest Musician in the Forest Bonnie and Carol Relaxing

Cheers for now from Bonnie and Carol

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