Monday, May 31, 2010

Sleeping, Part 4: On The Job

As mentioned a few days ago, this post has been ready and waiting for a while - but with the number of bodies online who would probably never wake up it didn't seem proper to use it. Now that that things have calmed down (or at least are in the eye of the hurricane) here's the fourth installment of the "Sleeping" series.

Probably the best example today of the Thai ability to sleep wherever and whenever is the group of workers in the header photo above: three of a dozen or so, taking a nap on the sidewalk after eating lunch and before the whistle called them back to their paving and masonry work.

The two below this are somewhat logical snoozing spots. If I were working at a beach chair concession and things were slow after the morning set-up I'd be tempted to take a quick 40 winks as this guy did, and I got the photo of the woman asleep in the mall atrium stall from a floor above. It was close to closing time on a slow night at the Suan Lum Night Market near Lumpini Park when I took the picture of the man sleeping in his booth.

The final picture today is of a young man who was still soundly sawing logs on a bench in front of the Royal Garden Mall in Pattaya around 10:00 in the morning. My friend and I supposed he was perhaps a "night worker" by his look, his somewhat obvious aroused state... and still unzipped jeans.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Palm Sugar: Tao Tan (Processing)

The tao tan (palm sugar refinery) I stopped at in March wasn’t a large factory by any stretch of the imagination but it was cranking out batches you could never do in your kitchen. The day I was there they were portioning coconut palm batches out into metal five-gallon containers. Sad to say I didn’t make note of the name of the place – at least not in any of my notes that I can find – so let’s just call it The Plant for now. There were four people working that day, so it may well have been a family operation. There’s a string of five or six of them along Route 325 near Samut Songkhram, an area known for its higher-quality palm sugar.

As usual, it was a warm afternoon; the lack of a breeze didn’t help matters for those in the covered-but-open area, working with a furnace-type cooker and woks bubbling with steaming hot syrup, and everyone was sweating freely. The people working were making larger portions today: five gallons at a crack, poured into square metal cans.

Most of you have been told you don’t want to see the inside the kitchen of your favorite eatery, and that’s probably sound advice for most food processing places - this one included. While I didn’t observe insects or other vermin, let’s just say you can see by the photos there wasn’t a big Hobart dish washing machine huddled in the corner. You just can't think about it.

The juice (or sap) from the buds was poured into the large (nearly 3 feet in diameter) woks to about the half-full point and put over an opening in the brick furnace you see in the top image, being hand fueled from one end with scrap wood. The sap was then boiled for somewhere around 15 minutes to begin the reduction process. I never saw an instrument being used to test the mixture so my guess is it a process done so many times that it had become rote.

At some point white sugar was being added to today’s blend, and it was again allowed to boil; this time with a big woven cylinder sitting in the mixture, weighted down across the top edge with a board. You can see three of these in the top image behind the opening to the furnace, standing in a row like smokestacks, and again immediately above. The mixture boiled furiously now, forming a ring of foam around the outside of the bottomless “basket”, climbing up the inside like pasta needing a little oil added to the water.

The steam was almost too sweet smelling after a while, and reminded me of an afternoon at a cane sugar refinery I’d visited, far down into Mexico one summer long ago.

When it’s reached the desired viscosity the entire wok is transferred – carefully – onto a specially designed four-wheeled rack and moved away from the furnace. Anyone who has ever gotten molten sugar syrup onto bare skin knows precisely why: it sticks, and it’s hot enough to cook the skin beneath it while you’re trying to get it scraped off. I won’t go into how I know other than to say when I’ve making Christmas candies now I’m exceptionally careful.

Another collar is set into the pan, metal this time, and a beater that looks like a miniature version of one from a long-tailed boat is swung over and down into it. The mixture is then beaten as it cools, again to a specific look and consistency.

The worker then gives it a good stir, scraping the portions that have already begun to cool to a solid back into the molten mix and begins to pour it into the waiting five-gallon metal cans.

Once the can’s full and has begun to set it’s imprinted with a seal, somewhat like they used to seal a letter with in olden times. The cans were then being loaded into the back of a small pickup truck for delivery to the customer.

I wandered over to the retail area, maybe 30 feet from the furnace, the sweet smell of the sap still at full boil wafting along with me. There I saw small bags of the final product for home use; some in bits and pieces and some resembling small cow pies. Now being sure how well it would travel I didn’t buy any to take along, unfortunately.

Also on sale was an assortment of different candies and baked goods, some with samples out to try as is often the case in the markets there. Of the available samples I liked the little ทอฟฟี่โบราณ (“Old Style Toffee”) candies best. They were richly flavorful without being nearly as sweet as I’d expected, and I bought a number of bags of them to give to friends.

With a final glance around the place, partly to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and partly out of gratitude that I wasn’t working there and could get into my friend’s air conditioned car and be carried away, I did just that; popping one of the bags open and having just one more of those delicious sweets as we headed back out onto the highway, headed for home.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Palm Sugar: The Overview

Although you’ll see refined white sugar on your table in the hotel and many restaurants in Thailand, what you might well see used back in the kitchen for curries and other dishes is palm sugar. It’s called several names there: nam taan pep, nam taan mapraow and nam taan bik, depending on the type of palm it’s made from. It’s widely used throughout Asia, including Southeast Asia and Pacific Island nations, like the Philippines.

Palm sugar is more the color of what we’d refer to in the West as brown sugar, or perhaps raw cane sugar. The flavor is much like brown sugar, too; although it doesn’t have the sharp aftertaste that brown cane sugar has. The flavor is much richer and warmer toned than its cane counterpart so it’s ideal for desserts, which is a common usage for it there.

It varies from a light tan to a deep golden brown, and can be in granular or syrup form, but is found more often in “soft but firm” or firm form; some being as hard as the over-sized hockey puck it sometimes resembles. My guess is that it depends on a variety of factors: the type of palm sap, the cooking time for the batch and the amount of refined sugar or other additives in the mix (if any). Overall it melts faster in cooking and has a high tolerance to heat before it scorches.

It’s gaining in popularity outside of Asia not only because of its taste in dishes but because of its very low glycemic (and high nutritional) values, making it a healthier choice for diabetics. I expect that as more and more of the baby boomers reach the “Type 2” stage – and we are en mass, after decades of junk food and Super Sizing – that alternatives like palm sugar will become much more readily available to the burgeoning market.

My friend said details of the manufacturing process varies from maker to maker, but the small outfit he took me to were also adding refined white sugar to the batches they were making that day. You have to carefully check labels, and that’s a challenge if you want to avoid all white processed sugar and don’t read Thai.

The harvesting procedure varies by variety, too, but they all involve slitting or cutting the sides or end off of the clusters of bud or buds of the palm and then collecting the sap in a container hanging on or below it. The first thing that came to mind when I saw the cylindrical tubes hanging in the tree were the buckets you’d see collecting maple tree or rubber tree sap. You’ll see photos of Thailand rubber trees in another post down the line.

Once the sap has been collected it’s processed; sometimes at home, sometimes in larger plants. Tomorrow we’ll go through the process I watched and photographed at a small plant southwest of Bangkok.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Visakha Puja Day

Visakha Puja is the day most Buddhists recognize as the day the Buddha was born, reached enlightenment and rose to Nirvana. The Day of Vesak, or Visakha Puja, falls on the full moon of the sixth lunar month, falling this year (2553/2010) on May 28th in Thailand.

For my Buddhist friends everywhere who will observe Visakha Puja today: I wish you peace.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Housekeeping Day Here

No real "post" today... too many things to do around the house in preparation for an extended visit by a family member.

The photo was taken from my room in Bangkok on a recent trip. I've long thought the tradition of airing out the bedding like this is a charming one, and it reminds me of the beauty of simplicity all too often trampled underfoot nowadays.

Back tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thinking Of Suvarnabhumi

The only good thing about leaving Thailand (other than the obvious draw of family, friends and sleeping in my own bed) is being able to begin to plan and look forward to a return visit.

Saying goodbye to my friends in Thailand is never easy, and more emotional some times than others - depending on where we all are on our paths at that moment in our lives - but standing in the inevitable line at passport control usually gives me time to look back and reflect on the trip just ending.

By the time I see the view above I'm usually ready to board the plane, have a light meal and "Z" out my mental register for a while. Shortly after waking, though, I'm already daydreaming about the next trip.

Wanderlust is really, really difficult to shake.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sanuk Doesn’t Just Mean “Fun”

You can’t be in Thailand for more than a day or two without noticing how common it is to see people smiling and joking around with each other, regardless of how boring or unpleasant the situation they’re sharing may be.

At the core of it is a viewpoint – an ethic, if you will – that people in the West could benefit from: that there’s fun or enjoyment to be found in almost anything we do, if we choose to stop and acknowledge it. To perhaps oversimplify, we tend to sweat too much of the small stuff.

Defining it is rather like trying to grab a handful of smoke, but the Thai word that comes closest is sanuk, which means finding enjoyment or satisfaction in whatever it is you happen to be doing. I’d go so far as to say many Thai believe if something’s not sanuk, it’s not worth doing. Period.

It doesn’t seem to matter if they’re one of a group cleaning out a clogged sewer drain (like the guys above), a kid hauling two dozen 50-pound bags of ice from truck to store or a produce vendor, sharing a laugh with a neighboring stall in a local market – there’s sanuk to be found in everything we’re tasked to do.

There are different phrases for different types, but thamngan sanuk means to enjoy one's work. I’m not well versed enough in the language to be able to cite other examples, sorry to say.

It’s safe to say that although the wounds are still fresh, the thousands who turned out for the Together We Can-type clean up activities a couple of days ago found enjoyment in the street-side janitorial work they were sharing, same same as the man doing the upholstery work in Friday’s post, who was visiting with a man pushing a cart across the street from him when I snapped his picture.

I happened on the “plumbers” in the top picture while walking one afternoon. The sections of 4” pipe they were working on were firmly stuck, and they were taking turns with a large pipe wrench, futilely trying to break the connection. The more ways they tried to prop it up for leverage and the more bravado each demonstrated before throwing up their hands and letting another of them try, the louder their shouts of laughter became. When they finally managed to get it to turn, you’d have thought they’d collectively won the lottery.

The man holding the tire had just given his head a good bump, but rather than launch the cloud of profanity I might have done had it been me, he smiled at the catcalls and laughter from the others working with him.

The day these construction workers were bent over moving cinder blocks it was 104F (40C) at least. Moving slowly along the National Stadium BTS walkway I’d stopped to watch the activity on my way to the museum nearby. Seeing me taking pictures, one of the workers struck the “law” (handsome) pose, framing his face with his thumb and index finger. His co-worker in the yellow hard hat turned and saw him, slapped him on the butt as if to say “stop clowning around” and the two of them giggled before returning to what must have been hot, unpleasant work that day.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Cleaning Up The Wreckage

There are a number of good examples online of Thai resiliency, but a couple worth looking at are featured here today. Thai photographer Nattawat Wongrat has quite an impressive selection of photos taken yesterday (23rd May) of people cleaning up the rubbish, graffiti and wreckage left behind after the most current round of unpleasantness. His photos are here for viewing. I read in RQD's "Community Therapy" post that there were somewhere around 6,000 there helping yesterday. It's heartening.

The song used in this YouTube video clip is a little too "Up With People" for me (and boy, did I just date myself with
that reference) but the images are hopeful:

I'm realistic enough to understand that this may just be a break of a week, a month or a year, but as I was posting on an online forum this morning it's
so encouraging to see a positive force pulling together to begin some healing. Obviously it's not over and done with, but I'm glad the violence has abated... at least for this round. Let's hope whatever happens next is less deadly.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Happier Times: Center One Mall Pano - Before

A stitched-image of the Central Mall area before the fires and looting, taken from the BTS walkway around Victory Monument about 8:00 one morning. You can see the Century Park Hotel off in the distance. Interesting that Peace Park was so close to this uproar, and a shame more peace - and cooler heads - didn't prevail.

Thank goodness the worst of it is over... for now, anyway. This is a larger image; apologies to those with slower internet connections.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Thai Smiles, Part 5: On The Job

I've had another post prepared for the "Sleeping" series for a while now, but as I was looking at the images this morning they still looked too much like the photos we've seen in the news recently - minus the blood - so we're going to put it on hold and try again to act like things are returning to normal with another batch of happier photos.

The images today were all taken on morning walks, and are all of people while working, in one way or another. The father sitting near the front of the family reupholstering shop, the hotel worker, the Pepsi delivery guy and the girl minding her family's food cart all exhibited a mindset many in the West could learn a lesson from: find some joy in what you do while holding body and soul together in this life.

The Thai have a phrase for it, and it's thamngan sanuk, which means to enjoy one's work. We'll take another look at thamngan sanuk Monday.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

My Night At Hat Nang Ram

During a June 2005 visit it turned out that one of my Thai hosts unexpectedly had his military duty schedule changed on him. Since he couldn’t be around for about 36 hours to take me around as he’d planned he’d been kind enough to book a beach bungalow for me to rest at while he was making his hospital rounds. He knew me well enough to know I’d enjoy some “down” time to catch up on writing and people watching along the beach – and he was right. It had been an overbooked and somewhat hectic trip so far, so even though it was a plunge into the unknown for me and made me a little uneasy, I thanked him for taking such good care of me and hoped for the best.

So, late one afternoon we headed South out of Pattaya past Sattahip, stopping briefly for water and fruit to snack on. Once off of Highway 3 we went along another few minutes until my friend finally announced with a grin “We’re here!” “Here” was Hat Nang Ram (หาดนางรำ), a small locals beach area, popular on weekends but nearly deserted during the week. Making one last turn we went a bit further before ending up at a beautiful, flat, white sand beach, with gorgeous tropical blue water gently lapping at the shore. There were less than a half dozen people sprinkled along the crescent of white against blue.
There was a line of shops facing the ocean, set back about 100 yards from the water, all sharing the same roof; several eateries and shops selling fruit, drinks and simple handicrafts. This being a weekday there were more vendors than customers, and they were being kept company by a few dogs that sniffed around and raised dust in the parking lot as they chased tails between naps in the shade. My friend went into an office of some sort to get my room key, and I walked out to the nearby sand.

A pier extended far out over the water to my right and there was a rocky outcropping at the end to my left where there’s a small shrine to Kromluang Chumphonkhetudomsak, cited as being the Father of the Royal Thai Navy.

Amid the line of pine trees along the sand, maybe 300 feet away from the water’s edge stood a few small freestanding bungalows; really no more than cinder block studio rooms with a small bathroom en suite. Mine was approximately where the blue “X” is on the photo below. When my friend returned with my key I grabbed my bags from his car and followed him to the door, standing back as it exhaled the hot air from inside. He then went directly to the aircon to switch it on as I looked around.

It was very basic: tiled floor, a small desk, a double bed with a fairly firm mattress, a small wardrobe-type cabinet and a refrigerator. The bathroom was a tiled room measuring maybe eight feet square, with a sink, toilet and shower hose attachment on the wall with a single faucet handle – but no water heater. I knew I’d be taking a shorter shower than usual.

“Did you book me a double room?” I called to my friend, who peeked around the doorway at me, looking puzzled. “No, why?” he asked, and then shouted in surprise at the huge creature I pointed to on the ceiling above him. After I took a couple of photos of it, we had a few spirited minutes getting him shooed down from his perch and then around the room before he finally made it out the front door.

My friend brought in some drinks and other snacks he’d packed, and after he stocked the refrigerator he said his goodbyes for the day, saying he’d be back after his hospital rounds seeing patients the next morning some time. I hung a couple of shirts up, grabbed some water and went out to explore the beach.

There were about seven guys on the beach playing football by the time I got out there, and they stayed for at least an hour while I made my way around the beach area, taking a few pictures. I finally settled in to watch them laugh and play for a while from a spot in the shade, until I was ready to go inside and take a little nap.

I had a basic meal from one of the small restaurants on the “strip mall” when I woke up, and then after another walk just because the ocean breeze felt so good I retired to shower and read a little before falling sound asleep until morning, the sound of the nearby surf carrying me away to dreamland.

The next morning I looked out the window and was immediately struck with panic: the water was gone! The beautiful azure waters had pulled out away from the sandy beach, at least a hundred yards, maybe two! How could this be? Could there possibly be a tsunami in a gulf? Could one possibly happen again just six months after the tragedy that struck the Phuket area? Could I possibly manage to haul my out-of-shape self up the steep hillside behind my bungalow if I had to? I had no way to contact my friend, and boy was I nervous.

There were a few women and children far from the dry sand, poking around at things now exposed, and I figured them to be goners as I hurried to dress and go quickly to the first open stand, next to where I’d had dinner the evening before. The woman sweeping up with her broom looked up without any of the concern she must have seen on my face, and when I pointed to the shore and said “there’s no water!” she called to her son, who came out from the back, rubbing his eyes. “Is there danger?” I asked him, still somewhat agitated. He laughed… and laughed… and laughed. I was about to turn and head to pack and run, thinking “everyone here is nuts,” when he said “Every day, every day. Water out, water in!”

And finally, I got it. Low tide. VERY low tide on a VERY flat beach. He explained it to his mother, and we all laughed; me with relief, them at my silliness. As I thanked them and sheepishly headed back to my bungalow I could hear the laughter as the story of the crazy farang made its way along from shop to shop.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

MORE Than Enough, Thank You

The situation in Bangkok has exploded out of control. Skytrains and subways are closed down, as are many embassies. The military is returning live ammunition fire as tanks and water cannons are clearing some key protest areas, even as some of the protest leaders continue to encourage their followers to burn the place down.

Truckloads of tires are aflame along many streets, as are fires in some shops, stores, portions of major malls, a major television station, the Thai stock exchange, a movie theater and many other spots. It is, in my opinion, an undeclared civil war zone.

There are also reports and rumors of bombings, burnings and demonstrations in many other areas of the country - some documented, some not. Most would agree this is a long ways from being over.

There's nothing more I can offer here today than some images and a prayer that cooler hearts and minds prevail before too much further suffering occurs. My fear is that the violence will be on-going for a while, even if a deal is struck.

There are a half dozen friends entirely too close to the hot spots as I write this - and although they probably can't see this post today, they're in my thoughts and prayers.

Really, people... there MUST be a better way to settle this. Enough.

All of today's images were taken by journalists over the past 24 hours, to the best of my knowledge.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sunrise, Sunset - Part 4

After an hour of catching up with news stories, video clips, forums and fellow bloggers now would seem a good time to simply let go of things for a few minutes and look back at some more peaceful times I've had in Thailand. If these don't do the trick for you there are a few more sets to look at; you'll find them under "Sunrises/Sunsets" if you scroll down the right hand column on the page.

The top photo today one of dawn, taken from one of the upper floors of the Century Park hotel (a place there will be a post about again at a later date). It would be nice to think that there'll soon be a dawn of reason and communication between the embattled folks in Bangkok soon, too. The one below this was taken outside of Udonthani at a reservoir I've walked to many an evening.

Just above here is a shot of a sunset from the main beach in Pattaya, as is the last one below.
Deep breaths, everyone. I fear the madness there is far from over.