A Day Out in Bangkok

I was planning on sharing details of my last day in Chiang Mai.  However I took photos on my phone to show, and then my phone came out of my pocket in the tuk-tuk on the way to the airport.  Thankfully the Chaing Mai White House called the tuk-tuk driver and he has returned it to them so I should have the photos to share eventually.

Meanwhile and uneventful flight to Bangkok and a pleasant afternoon sitting by the pool and drinking mango shakes.  I was planning to head out to dinner but the thunderstorm which looked as though it had passed let rip just as I was planning to leave so a sudden change of plans and I ate here.  I had stir-fried rice with seafood, but it was definitely de-spiced for the Western visitors.

Today after breakfast I decided to visit Wat Arun.  I remember seeing this spectacular prang  – a great spike which gleams in the sunshine – from the river when we first visited Bangkok in 2010.  I walked down to the central Sathorn pier, and caught the local ‘express’ river boat.  These are easy to recognise from their orange flag.  There is a tourist boat with a blue flag which is even more express, because it stops at fewer points.  However it costs a little more and you have to put up with a bad and loud commentary over the speakers.

The slightly disappointing thing is that Wat Arun is currently having it’s hair done.  The top part of the spire was covered in scaffold so that it could be cleaned.  Nevertheless it was interesting to get close-up to the surface which is painted white and inlaid with ceramic tiles.  It is possible to climb up a couple of levels of the spire.  The steps are impressively steep, especially when you remember that Thai people are generally short.

The first time we visited Bangkok our friends Dugan and Det took us to the end of the boat ride for lunch.  As I was done at the Wat it seemed like a good thing to repeat.  I continued up the river to the last stop at Nonthaburi. A 15 Baht fare (about 40p) gets you any distance.  The tourist boat doesn’t go this far.  Adjacent to the pier is a floating restaurant called Rimfang.  I was the only customer for lunch.   I had crispy fried catfish with basil leaves and it was not de-spiced, there were full-on slices of both red and green fresh chilli in there.  Perfect with a portion of rice and a glass of iced lemon tea.

Another 15 Baht fare took me all the way back to the central pier.  This really is a great way to get a feel for Bangkok. From there I caught the BTS Sky Train to Sala Deng and walked back to the hotel.

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Study at Thara Thai Massage

Today was my last day studying with Ajahn Suwat at Thara Thai Massage in Chiang Mai.  (Ajahn is a Thai title, meaning something like ‘master’.)  I’m very happy that I chose to study with Suwat, and grateful that he accepted me as a student.

Thara Thai Massage, Chiang Mai

My massage practice came about by accident really.  We were taking a trip to Australia to visit my sister and family and stopped over in Bangkok for a few days.  Friends from London showed us around and introduced us to a local friend who took me for my first massage.  I was so impressed by it that a year later I flew to Chiang Mai to take an beginners course.  This was just with the intention of learning more – but I so enjoyed it that I ended up studying more more deeply and people who had received massages in the UK encouraged me to do more.

As the benefits of the massage practice started to show more people came by recommendation, and often because they had a specific ache or pain that concerned them.  This was when I started looking for resources on how to handle specific conditions. I came across one of the Thara Massage videos on YouTube about a year ago and realised that this was the style of massage I was looking for.

Ajahn Suwat has taken his own study of massage in the Thai style, but then applied his deep knowledge of anatomy to it.  Through 15 years of research and observation he has noticed links of cause and effect in the human body. Because of the holistic approach of Thai medicine he has noticed things which might be missed by western medicine.  As a result his practice in Chiang Mai has become recognised as the place to go if you need physical therapy.

The two week course began with four students.  Two Thais, a Korean and me.  We learned a basic massage routine which covered the body in the Thara house style.  It is a very efficient style and could be used to give an overall general massage prior to focussing on specific needs.

Even though it would take some time to perfect this style as soon as we all had the basics Ajahn went on to cover specific ‘syndromes’.  This might either be a named medical condition such as ‘plantar fasciitis’ or it might be a set of aches and pains that could arise from tension in a specific muscle.  For example, who knew that tension in the Psoas (a muscle of the lower abdomen and hip) could show up as soreness in the ankle, the back of the knee, the ribs, and the front of the shoulder.?

The awarding of a certificate

The pattern for the remaining days was that Ajahn Suwat would teach about three different syndromes in the morning and we would then be left to practice in the afternoon.  He would pop in to see if we had any problems or answer questions.  If we were short of bodies to practice on his staff would often volunteer when they were not working.  If he was giving a massage himself in the afternoon he would sometimes call us in to see an example of something.  If we were not practising there was always the option to sit quietly in the treatment room and observe.

The second week started with me as the only student, which give me full-on attention and less time for note taking.  This was a real treat although it meant that there was less opportunity for practice.  Staff at the clinic were very kind in letting me practice both my massage and my Thai on them.  I felt rather poor at both.  On the last two days Alexandra from The Netherlands joined.

The low student numbers is normal at this time of year – it is just building to the hottest time and the air quality in Chiang Mai can be pretty poor due to the burning of the rice fields in the surrounding area and neighbouring Laos. Most overseas visitors come from Novembeer to February.  I consider myself to have been very lucky to have the attention of a true master of Thai massage.

So, what now?  I have a rough notebook which I intend to write up properly, which I hope will help me revise what I have learned in the process.  The next stage will be to incorporate what I have learned into my existing practice.  Meanwhile I have a day to get my things together, a flight to Bangkok and a day there to relax and do some sight seeing before returning home.

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My Journey to Thara Massage

This could be a philosophical post about how I came be be studying Thai massage as the only Student (currently) at a massage clinic specialising in the therapy aspects of the practice.  But actually it’s just going to be about the walk I’ve been making each morning.  It will be heavier on photos than dialogue.

I’ve been having a cup of black tea, then showering and getting my things together and leaving the Chiang Mai White House at about 7:50.  The guest house is on a narrow soi (usually translated as lane) which is just about wide enough for one car or truck.  If two need to pass then someone has to back up.  I cross the main road and continue, turning right onto another soi which takes me to Sompat market.

This is a little market which does very well out of the fact that several Thai cookery schools take their students there to lecture them about Thai ingredients.  It is also surrounded by guest houses so the majority of customers are tourists and the prices reflect that.  Opposite the market is JoJo’s, where I get a breakfast plate of fruit sprinkled with museli.  This morning’s arrangement featured banana, papaya, mango, dragonfruit, watermelon, grapes and some sort of yellow plum.

I read over breakfast and then walk to the end of the soi where it meets the wall of the old city.  The walled city of Chiang Mai was almost a perfect square, surrounded by a moat.  Inside the moat is an anticlockwise ring road which I cross by waiting for a gap and going for it.  I cross the moat to the clockwise ring road, which is even bigger and at this time in the morning has no breaks in the traffic so I walk to the light and press the button.  It changes to green and the light stops the traffic for exactly ten seconds – you don’t hang around when it tells you to cross.

From here I walk along the ring road to the north-east corner of the city where some of the old wall can still be seen just inside the moat.  The moat has fountains which throw a fine mist of water into the air which seems to help cool things and maybe cuts the pollution a little.  It’s about 30C by this time.

At the corner I turn off and walk around a rather splendid looking temple, which I’ve not had the opportunity to visit yet.  At which point the road gets a bit barren, and as there are sections with no paths around corners one has to pay attention.  In about five minutes I turn left at the next lights and onto Muang Samut.  This is the road the clinic is on, but first I have to pass through what is locally called “the big market” and is officially Muang Mai Market.

This is the market where the restaurants in the town send their buyers to get just about everything.  It stretches for about six soi and several covered warehouse areas.  There are fish and prawns swimming in tanks, mounds of chicken piled up a metre high, and enough green coconuts to build a house with.  I bought two double hands of little finger sized bananas, probably about 50 fruit in all, for 30 Baht which is 75p.  I could probably have offered less.

The soi of the market itself are a complete traffic jam of people on foot, barrowboys with carts stacked high and buyers on motorbikes, sometimes piled equally high.  Sometimes I walk through the market and up to Thara Massage by the back soi, but it takes quite a bit longer as movement often comes to a complete halt.

Just beyond the market is a section of metalwork and motorbike repair shops.  Guys have workbenches on the pavement where they are hammering away at some old water pump whilst a woman in a grease soaked apron fetches parts from the stores inside.

Finally I get to Thara Thai Massage at number 72 around 8:50.  Not that I’ve noticed numbers on any of the buildings. And just a word of warning if you are trying to find it out of hours:  the shutters that come down when it is closed cover the name so you could quite easily miss it.  The walk from my breakfast spot to the clinic takes just over 15 minutes.

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Learning Thai with Noinaa

The last time I came to Thailand I tried to learn a little Thai beforehand.  I got a book and audio CDs: Complete Thai by David Smyth from the Teach Yourself series.  I used a few online resources too.  However I didn’t get much opportunity to use it.  Most of the Thai people I met preferred to speak English.  It did come in handy when I took the Sunshine Network massage course in the Lahu village.  Thai was also a second language for the Lahu family whose house we stayed in and they had no English.

Before the current trip I did a little revision but I was struggling.  My lovely husband proposed to get me some tuition with a native speaker.  We did identify someone, but it was too far to travel and too little time to organise.  Jess, who I met the last time I was staying at the Chiang Mai White House recommended studying with Noinaa once I got here.  A few emails were exchanged and we agreed to meet.

Thai is in many ways much easier than European languages.  There is no need to change the form of the verb to represent the person or the tense.  There are no gender words the like ‘le’ and ‘la’ in French or ‘der’, ‘die’ and ‘das’ in German.  The main problem comes from the use of a different writing system and the fact that the same sounding word can be pronounced with one of five tones, and the vowel sound can be short or long.  Each of these permutations can give the word an unrelated meaning.  For example a word which to my ears sounds close to ‘cow’ can mean any one of white, rice, knee, news, horn, he/she, enter or ‘a fishy smell’.

Studying with Noinaa at the Chiang Mai White House

I met with Noinaa after being here a few days to settle in.  She listened to what I was struggling with and then adapted her lesson to use words which featured the vowel sounds I was finding difficult.  For two hours with the patience of a saint she found ways to cover different material whilst emphasising these sounds.

I would have loved to have had another lesson mid-week, but after massage school each day I was to drained so we met again the following weekend.  This time Noinaa started with a discussion of what I’d eaten for breakfast.  Then she helped me go through the expressions that I might need whilst giving a massage.  “lay on your back,”  “turn on your side,” “extend your leg.”  A discussion of the different ways that the word ‘mai’ could be pronounced, one of which means ‘wood’, and is used for the wooden skewers to hold meat for barbecue, brought us back to the topic of food.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my sessions with Noinaa and I hope it will be possible to arrange another one before I leave. for anyone spending time in the area I would recommend getting her to take you through the basics so that you can say a bit further than the ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ that most westerners manage.  Noinaa provides lots of extra resources via her blog and also offers sessions via Skype.

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 Thai Cookery Day

The last time I stayed in Chiang Mai I would often be walking past the Asia Scenic cookery school on my way back from massage school or on my way to get something to eat.  Whatever they were doing in there they seemed to be having a good time!  Knowing that I had a few days to get over my jet lag and settle in this time I arranged to do a full day course with them.

We met at the school just before 9am and were assigned to a group.  We met our teacher, Merry, and headed out to the little local market “Sompat Market”.  There Merry taught about some of the ingredients, and showed us where to buy them.  All the ingredients for the day were supplied by the school but it was helpful to be shown what they look like on the market stall.  Back at the school she showed us the little organic herb and vegetable garden at the back and talked about the various properties of the plants.

Merry shows us how its done

After a quick snack it was down to work making our first stir-fry.  Merry gave a demonstration, made us chant out the proportions of sugar, fish sauce and oyster sauce we should used (proportions of 1:2:3 in that order) and then off we went.  Could we remember everything she did?  No, but it didn’t matter because Merry flew between all nine of us telling us when to add the next thing to the wok, when to turn the heat up or down or off, when to serve it onto a place and somehow within a couple of minutes we were all back at the table tucking in.  And guess what?  It tasted fantastic.  Given that it was still only 11am it’s just as well I had skipped breakfast.

Next in the running order were spring rolls.  Two of us followed Merry’s instructions and stir-fried batches of the filling.  Merry then showed us how to get a perfect roll and the secret to having the perfect fried finish.  (Make sure the the soft surface of the wrap is downwards before you start.)  Then we fried them in batches, served them and ate them too.

Preparing the curry paste

Next Merry had us preparing ingredients for soup, carefully chopping or slicing and placing the ingredients on a plate in groups according to when they would be added in the cooking process.  This was all set to one side and we then prepared ingredients for our chosen curry.  Again these were set to the side under covers whilst we gathered round again to make batches of curry paste.  There were three basic mixes, and then the red curry paste was split and various other ingredients incorporated to make several derivatives.

Finally came the time to cook everything.  More certain of ourselves this time, and safe in the knowledge that Merry would ensure we did the right thing at the right time, the woks started clattering and the currys came together in a few minutes.  We put them back on the table under covers and made the soup – my choice was “Tom Sab” a spicy soup with mushroom and kale.   At last we sat down to eat it all.

Mango with sticky rice

For those who had arranged the half day it was time to go home.  However three of us were booked for the full day.  We then prepared two more dishes.  First we made the coconut flavoured sticky rice needed for “mango sticky rice”  Something I’ve never seen before was using a tea made from butterfly pea flower to colour the rice blue.  (Yeah, blue, isn’t there a law against blue food?)  Olivia, from Istanbul, made banana in coconut milk instead.  Then we prepared the dressing for papaya salad.  This was a bit of a cheat because the papaya and carrot had already been shredded for us.  By the time we had eated all this newly prepared food we could barely move.

After saying our goodbyes I headed back to The White House for a rest.  After chatting to BP, the manager there, I decided to take myself off for a Thai massage at a nearby place he recommended.  It was indeed very good and that meant that I had a great siesta around 5pm as the temperature peaked at around 40C.

It being Saturday there is a night market just outside the South gate to the walled city.  I wandered down there and faced the crowds to pick up some Thai-style cotton 3/4 length shorts as I’ve been finding the Slazenger ones I bought at home quite uncomfortable in the heat.  I certainly didn’t need to eat again, so I picked up a coconut smoothie on the way out of the market and made it back to the guest house for an early night.

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Travel to Chiang Mai

This is my fourth visit to Thailand and my third to the northern city of Chiang Mai.  Each time I’ve taken a different airline.  This was my first time with Oman Air.  The flight out of Heathrow was delayed by about 45 minutes due to the crew not turning up.  Apparently they were stuck in a traffic jam outside their hotel.  It seems that whilst they insist that we mere passengers turn up with three hours to go, the flight crew cut it rather finer.

The change of planes at Muscat was therefore a hurried affair and I was concerned that whilst I had made it with a few minutes to spare, my luggage may not have done.  After a second flight of four and a bit hours we arrived at the beautiful Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and by the time I had cleared visa control there was my bag going round on the carousel.  Feeling a little jaded by then I lugged it up to the fourth floor and checked it in again for my connecting flight to Chiang Mai.  Bangkok Air have the wonderfully enlightened practice of opening their lounge to economy passengers, providing free snacks and WiFi.  I passed the two hour wait there.  The flight was uneventful and I love the way that at Chiang Mai airport the pilot just taxis up to the building and parks the aircraft.  Passengers disembark, and just walk into the building.  No fuss with buses or sky-bridges here.

It was gone 11pm local time by the time I arrived so rather then try to find a tuk-tuk I just grabbed a taxi.  You can arrange it all whilst waiting for your luggage and then just go outside and find your driver.  About 15 minutes later I was walking up the narrow lane to the Chiang Mai White House, where the night watchman was expecting me.  Whilst he was copying details out of my passport I grabbed water and beer from the fridge and wrote it in the honesty book.  Total time from leaving home to arriving in my room here: 26 hours.  I was ready for bed!

I’d like to give a shout out to Steve, one of my longest standing massage clients.  He gave me this hang-up wash bag for Christmas and it works perfectly.  Being away for three weeks one needs full size containers of things like shower and shave gels and toothpaste.  This was just the right size for everything I needed on that front.  Bathrooms in guest houses very often don’t have much by way of shelving, although the one here does have a small shelf.  But this wash-bag hangs perfectly on the towel rail.  As the showers here are generally wet rooms everything in the bathroom can get wet if one isn’t careful.  However, the towel rail is usually in the place that’s likely to stay driest.  Another related feature of Thai bathrooms is that one usually keeps the toilet paper out of the bathroom to avoid soaking the whole roll.  In any cases Thai toilets come with a ‘bum shower’ so that you can wash rather then wipe after using the toilet.  The toilet paper is used to dry oneself.

So my first full day has been spent getting over the jet lag and getting used to the heat.  I walked to the massage clinic  where I’ll be studying from Monday, had a siesta, went to the nearby temple for a massage, walked around the little local market getting a few bits and pieces and called in at another temple on the way home.  Chiang Mai is full of temples.

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Leek and Potato Soup


Happy New Year everyone.  We’ve had several meals this week using up leftovers from the festive season, often combining them with provender from the allotment.  Last night I diced the remainder of a gammon joint and put it into a black bean stew made with the Cherokee Veil of Tears beans.  Today lunch was home made bread with Leek and Potato soup using chicken stock from the weekend’s roast.  Both the leeks and potatoes came from the allotment.  The leeks are the first I’ve pulled from a row which are looking quite handsome at the moment.  The potatoes are Charlotte, so ideal as salad potatoes.  However they are getting a bit green and starting to sprout in the bag now so we have been peeling them well and using them up.  They’re delicious.

Meanwhile the seed catalogue is already laying about on the sofa and I’m starting to make a list of what we would like for the coming season.  I’ll get the seed box out at the end of the week and see what I have already.  I’ve saved a few sweet potatoes to grow slips from.  It’s tempting to chit the Charlottes from the bag, but one is supposed to start with disease-free seed potatoes each year so I think I’ll be a good boy and do that.

Anyway, here’s the recipe for the soup:

160g leeks (just the pale parts)
160g potato
100g onion
25g butter
1 level tsp dried mixed herbs
1/4 tsp powdered fenugreek
1/4 tsp salt
450ml approx, chicken stock
a little milk
100ml single cream

All of those were weighed after preparation and this made three large or four smaller portions of thick soup.  Fry the onion gently in butter until it starts to go transparent, then add in the leeks and continue to fry until they are also transparent.  If you have a good layer of fat on the stock you could use that to fry in.  Add in the potato and herbs and fenugreek and fry a little longer.  This will take about 10 mins in total.

Add enough chicken stock to cover.  If your stock is very salty you might not need to add salt, or be cautious and adjust at the end.  Bring to the boil and turn down to a simmer until the potato is very soft.  About half an hour.  Allow to cool a little before liquidising.  If the result is too stiff to churn over in the liquidiser add a little milk.  Return the soup to the pan, add the cream and heat whilst stirring to keep it from sticking to the pan.  Adjust salt at this stage if necessary.

You could garnish with chives. I didn’t have any, but the flat leaf parsley is still holding on, sheltering under a seat on the patio so I used a few leaves of that.


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