Month: January 2015

Surprise Chiang Mai Night Market

Strolling around Chiang Mai, Thailand on a Sunday afternoon, I checked my shopping list- I needed new sandals, a sweater for these cooler mountains, and a few other things. I was surprised by how many shops were closed, but I continued to walk around the surrounding neighborhoods, convinced that perhaps Sunday is a day of rest here too.

Then, around 4pm, I noticed motorbikes dropping off loads of goods on the sidewalks, street stalls being set up, and carts hauled to the side streets. A night market! I decided to return to my hostel for a quick rest, and then to check out the night market for dinner.

The market in its early hours, just outside my hotel. The crowds were still minimal at this time, around 5pm.

When I left my hostel at 5:00pm, the streets I had quickly walked through a few hours ago were transformed: the Sunday night market in Chiang Mai is the largest market that I’ve ever seen. Vendors line every major road in the old part of the city, forming long aisles for crowds to push through. Buskers stake out different domains, performing music, singing karaoke, and dancing. Though many vendors sell the same mass-produced tourist wares, others sell original paintings, sculpture, and tailored clothing.

Photo taken while crammed in the center of the crowd

I spent the next three hours exploring the market. Stands sold handmade soaps, recycled Coca Cola cans made into toys, and traditional Thai outfits tailored for dogs. I saw fabulous motorbike helmets, literal piles of paintings, leather bags and sandals sewn while you wait, and glow in the dark tableware. The market had a festival feel to it, with clowns making balloon animals, artists drawing caricature portraits, and temporary tattoo booths. Unlike many other night markets that I’ve seen in southeast Asia, this was for the tourists and the locals. I had never seen anything like it in my life- and to imagine, it happens every Sunday!

Crowd waiting to cross the street back through the old city’s gate

Of course, the best part about a large market in southeast Asia is that every family with access to a food cart comes with their best dishes. The main roads were lined with fruit shake vendors, crepe makers, and juicers, but the side alleys, courtyards, and parks housed the best food. Turning off the main road, I would suddenly find myself surrounded by food carts, each offering a different dish.

One such food alley

This is the real scene of the market, where Thailand’s best goods are for sale. The first food stand that I approached sold different types of rice mixed with your pick of spicy sauces, slow-cooked meat, and toppings.

The food vendors, serving up quick plates of steaming, hot rice topped with meat that had been slow-cooked all day

I spent the rest of the night eating small dishes on every street- deep-fried noodle balls, pork BBQ kebabs, chocolate covered bananas, sweet tea with tapioca. After three hours of walking, I still hadn’t seen the whole market, but with my stomach stuffed, I went home to rest. It was a wonderful night, made all the more fun by being completely unexpected. Incredible scenes with good food: the best kind of surprise when you travel!

Sitting down to eat my first snack: spicy rice, fried shrimp, slow-cooked chicken, and a variety of raw and pickled vegetables. Delicious!

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Happy Mountain Biking Christmas

This year, 2014, was the first time that I did not pass Christmas with my family. It also marks the first time that I spent Christmas mountain biking.

The Chi Phat community based ecotourism project is a project of Wildlife Alliance, based in the southwestern Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia. The Chi Phat village is home to about 2,000 people, many of whom are farmers in this protected area. This project is an attempt to integrate both the conservation of this wild area, and the economic development of its people. It is no small task.Though there are ongoing debates about community opinion, fairly shared profits, the right balance of environmental concern, and employment opportunities, this project remains the most impressive integration of conservation and development that I’ve ever seen. Former poachers are turned into wildlife rangers, and the wildlife is turned into a resource. Many local young people are employed as part time guides, and other households earn money by hosting tourists or providing food. This project has won multiple international awards. I was happy to support the project during my 5 days there.

The main road of Chi Phat village, near our homestay

In between mountain biking , swimming in the river, and exploring the village, we also visited the Million Tree nursery, a reforestation project funded by Wildlife Alliance. The greenhouses were impressive, housing thousands and thousands of young trees and bushes. The reforestation effort was started in 2010, and it continues to grow every year.

Panoramic view of the greenhouse with the young seedlings

Rows of older saplings, waiting to be big enough to be planted

Though these processes may move slowly, they are incredibly important. The Chi Phat project was inspiring and impactful to see. Conservation and development are not wholly mutually exclusive, but they do require careful thought and debate. It is projects like this one that are leading the way.

The view from the boat that took us to Chi Phat- it is a two hour boat ride from the nearest highway, or 45 minutes by motorbike. The village is beautiful and remote!

One Fish, Live Fish, Dried Fish, Frozen Fish

A tour of the food market in downtown Siem Reap:

Every type of dried fish imaginable

The shadows make it difficult to see, but live fish swim in a container on the floor underneath the shelf, and their recently killed comrades are for sale on top of the shelf

Piles of fresh seafood are kept cool, topped off with ice every few minutes

I love the fresh food markets in southeast Asia; I never tire of touring them, smelling the familiar and unfamiliar scents, listening to the bartering, seeing the high quality foods for sale. These diverse, enormous, crowded markets are amazing testaments to the care and attention that southeast Asians pay to their food. I believe that you can tell by the quality of a culture’s food by the quality of its markets. It is no wonder that some of the best cuisine in the world is from this region.

Silk Worms for Weaving, or Silk Worms for Eating?

Silk weaving has a long tradition in the Siem Reap area. Though the Khmer Rouge regime narrowly destroyed the industry, in recent decades, there has been a renaissance in Cambodian silk textiles. The magnificent Artisans d’Angkor company leads the resurgence in Siem Reap. During my stay, I visited their main workshop in Siem Reap, and then took a trip to their silk farm, located just outside the city.

Silk fibers, on display at Artisans d’Angkor

The  silk production process is complex and labor-intensive. It all starts with the incredible silk worms, who spend all their young lives munching on mulberry leaves (I can relate- I feel like I’ve also spent most of my time in Cambodia eating).

Up close and cute: silk worms

The worms spin cocoons to start the transition to moth. At the farm, some are allowed to hatch, but most of the cocoons are taken for their silk thread. The cocoons are boiled to kill the worm before it hatches, to keep the thread in one piece.

Trays of silk worm cocoons- unlike Chinese silk worms, which spin white thread, southeast Asian silk worms spin yellow thread

Then starts the human labor-intensive part of the process. The cocoon comes apart in two different threads, dividing into raw silk, with a rougher texture, and fine silk, the perfectly smooth thread.

The cocoons are heated so that the thread separates, and it is spun onto the wheel

The thread is spun again and refined

The silk is spun onto spools and dyed, using a variety of natural and synthetic dyes.

Many different colors of silk thread

Many dyed blue thread spools are spun together on a machine, with careful oversight

The process of making silk thread is complex, but it is only the beginning. In a nearby warehouse, giant looms clatter and sing as the women focus on their designs. Most of the women work with headphones in their ears, eyes intently focused, ignoring the tourist cameras. I’m mesmerized by the scripted dance that I don’t quite understand- their hands move up and down, adjusting frames, changing thread, tightening the weave. Weaving silk truly is a beautiful art, even in the middle of the process.

One weaver, completely focused on her work

I left the silk farm with a deep respect for everything that goes into silk crafts. Artisans d’Angkor does a wonderful job of sharing and preserving this art form and others, like wood and stone carving, lacquering, and painting. This organization employs over a thousand craftspeople, and it is a great example of socially conscious business in Cambodia.

Silk painting in Siem Reap

The next day, walking down a side street near the night market, my boyfriend and I happened upon Bugs Cafe. It is a tapas bar that focuses on making insects, long part of Cambodian cuisine, more accessible (or perhaps, fashionable) to foreigners. We ordered the insect fondue, sharing a plate of fried crickets and silk worms dipped in chocolate. Though I’ve had crickets, I had never tried silk worms. They had a nuttier, earthier taste than the crickets, which went well with the chocolate.

Savoring the taste, I thought back to the silk farm, and the trays of silk worms eating mulberry leaves. The silk worm- the powerhouse of silk production one day, the tasty snack at a hip new bar the next. Whatever its context, I have gained a new respect for this amazing insect.

The Crowds of Angkor

The magnificent temples of the Angkor Empire, built between the 9th and 15th centuries, draw around two million visitors a year. The day my boyfriend and I visited Angkor Thom, the last capital city, all two million seemed to be in the same place: with us, in a crowd, trying to exit the main temple building.

The entrance to an inner temple in Angkor Thom

December is the peak season for tourism in Angkor, and the old temples can seem more like theme parks than ancient ruins. People swarm everywhere- tour groups marching in matching visors, couples taking pictures on selfie sticks, and flag-bearing guides attempting to herd their charges. Tuktuks and giant tour buses line the roads, making it difficult and dusty to navigate with my rental bicycle. Looking for lunch, we have dozens of options, from restaurants, to plastic chairs and tables stand on the side of the road, to fresh coconuts and steamed rice packets sold out of a bicycle basket.

And yet, with all of the hustling and busyness, this scene is probably the most authentic tribute to the ancient city in recent history. Archaeologists estimate that at one point, this city housed a million people, making the Angkor civilization the largest pre-industrial city in the world.

Inside Angkor Wat’s highest level

A panoramic view of the same location

The temples of Angkor are immense and well-constructed. Though the impressive architecture and stone carvings can easily convince visitors of the power of this ancient kingdom, an even more impressive technology lies below the surface.

Immense structures house long hallways filled with carvings

The Angkor empire was built on successful water management. What is left standing, a series of moats, canals, and barays (large reservoirs), indicates a massive agricultural industry. Supporting a million people in a dense city state, a thousand years ago, required unprecedented technological advancements in water management. And ultimately, many scholars argue, it was when the population outgrew the water systems that the empire started to decline. Success in agriculture determines the rise and fall of empires.

The entrance to Angkor Wat, protected by an immense moat

Visitng Banteay Srei, a 10th century temple dedicated to Shiva,we are able to catch out breath from the crowds. The small, shaded temple is a quiet place to contemplate, so we unload our backpacks and set out our picnic- simple fruits, bread, and nuts. It is possible to find these quiet rests, even in the busiest of places.

Carving inside Banteay Srei

Another carving, disjointed by time

Refreshed, my belly full, who cares about the crowds? Good food powers civilizations; good food powers me. I’m ready for more exploration of these magnificent monuments of one of the world’s greatest civilizations- the Angkor!

The famous Ta Prohm, one of the sites less actively preserved, with old trees and forest growing out of its walls. Also, one of the filming locations for “Tomb Raider”.