Coup in Bangkok

Tanks in Bangkok (click photo for a larger view)

After viewing an emergency BBC broadcast, I sent the following note home:

Hi there. I've just seen the BBC news and a military coup claims to have taken over the government. Apparently there are tanks and military personnel on the streets of Bangkok.

I want you to know I am here still on the island of Phi Phi. Before the news of the coup, I bought a ticket back to Bangkok and I will be arriving there tomorrow.

According to my guide book, Thailand is famous for military coups. They maintain an elected and an appointed government with the military fluctuating in power. I suspect the same for this.

Please know I will take all reasonable safety precautions. If my plans change for any reason, I'll be sure to send an e-mail.

Now I've been in Seattle in the middle of the WTO riots and in Havana, Cuba during protests for the return of Elian Gonzalez. Upon arriving in Bangkok, I was prepared for mayhem.

The reality was quite different than the media broadcasts.

Thai citizens were unfathomed by the military presence. In fact, they were bringing water and ice cream to troops in the streets.

The Bangkok Post and other papers reported the coup more in terms of a protest by the military. No violence was anticipated...and every Thai citizen seemed aware of this.

However, the international news and the US government had a completely different reaction. In fact, days later, the US imposed sanctions on Thailand. SANCTIONS! We have imposed sanctions against North Korea and Iraq...but Thailand? I was stunned.

In Thailand, what takes precedence over any elected or appointed government official is loyalty to the King.

Note: In the photo above, soldiers have garlands of yellow flowers draped over the nose of the tanks. Citizens, who have come to take photos, also wear yellow shirts. Yellow is the symbol of loyalty to the king. As long as the King was not being threatened, there was no great concern.

In fact, according to an article written by the BBC, the present King of Thailand has held his reign through 17 military coups, 20 different prime ministers, and 15 constitutions.

Scuba Diving off Ko Phi Phi

Diving in the Andaman Sea

It had been my dream to dive in the Andaman Sea. Although I didn't have much hope, I knew whale sharks could be found in these waters. Noted by their white spots, an average adult whale shark is the size of a school bus! Technically, whale sharks are filter feeders and don't pose a threat to divers.

Once arriving on Ko Phi Phi, I headed for a dive shop. The reefs near the island were damaged in the tsunami, but very close by, there was still some excellent diving. I booked a trip for the following day.

Just a short 30 minute ride and we arrived at our first dive location. My dive buddy was an Italian guy who spoke limited English, but had logged over 200 dives. The signals in diving are universal, so we had no problem understanding each other. Our dive master was a guy from Texas, who was supposed to go back home 3 months ago....ah, the island life!

Both these divers were excellent and the Italian guy had a really great eye. He was the first to spot a turtle...and a reef shark. While I never did see a whale shark, we spotted white-eyed moray eels, angel fish the size of dinner plates, a lion fish, and tons of other tropical fish. The diving was easy...and shallow enough to reveal the vivid tropical colors.

Surfacing along the face of limestone rock spires was incredible. While we waited for the boat to pick us up, we bobbed on the surface of the water and studied the rock walls. Birds' nests and trees were anchored precariously along the rock face. Occasionally we'd spy a cave or see remnants of waterfalls now turned dry.

Between dives, I sat out on the bow of the boat. The sun reflected off the water and gave me a terrible burn. That put an end to any more days of diving...and my search for the elusive whale shark.

Island Lodging

My trusty Lonely Planet Guide was published right after the tsunami, so there was limited mention of lodging on the island. This is where my networking on the backpacker trail came in handy. I met a guy who had recently come from Phi Phi. He said finding lodging was no problem and the water was beautiful. So although I had no idea where I might be able to sleep, I boarded the ferry and headed over anyway.

Once on the island, waiting locals rushed to sell rooms. Laminated photos faded from the sun advertised limited choices. Naturally, they lobbied hard to sell the most expensive rooms first. After those were sold, they conceded and finally spoke to me about more humble offerings.

In the frenzy to snag a room, I agreed to stay at a place within a "7 minute walk to the beach" and a "10 minute walk to town". They shuttled me off to a motorcycle with my pack and I in a side car. We carefully navigated through the rough path. Most of the roads were under construction and the rest were still barely serviceable after the tsunami's destruction. No doubt it was one of the scariest rides of my life!

We somehow manage to arrive at the guest house alive and without damage. The driver immediately whisked my big backpack to my room while I checked in on the red mud street (like Georgia clay). Check in was a table on the side of the road. I kept thinking...the pictures looked nice.....

I entered my room. I had my own private toilet and shower, which was an improvement over the place I stayed in Chiang Mai. I spied my bag in the made it. Then I took in a deep breath and collapsed on the bed. What's that smell? I breathed in again, deeply. Stale and was the smell of mildew. I scanned the walls for any evidence of mold. Nothing. But the air was thick in the humidity and I couldn't get past the smell. It's then that I noticed an air freshener that long ago used up its life...and it was tied to the fan. My room had obviously been flooded in the tsunami.

While I waited for friends to meet me, I scoped out the local travel booking shops. They offered tours around the island, scuba diving, and rock climbing. Each shop had similar packages, but were slightly different (same same, but different!) I checked out a couple places in the amount of time it took my friends to go through the same hair-raising ride from the dock.

One shop I visited even books rooms. I took a look around. The buildings were wooden, newly constructed, and had beautifully landscaped grounds. I asked to see a room. It was positively stunning. Seriously. Straight out of Architectural Digest. Carved wood headboards, battique sheets and pillows, double bed. The bathroom was utterly beautiful with a skylight, French doors leading to the bedroom, tropical plants and orchids the BATHROOM!

The stench in my room haunted my memory.

My room was already paid for two nights, but I inquired anyway, "How much?"

Only 50 baht more than I paid!!! (36 baht = $1).


I asked if they had a vacancy two days from now. He had no idea. First preference went to guests already staying...and none of them appeared to be leaving soon.

I headed back to my room and stewed about what to do. Finally, I decided, to hell with it! I walked over, and booked that beautiful room for the next four nights.

Motioning behind me, the booking agent says says, "But you've already paid for a room over there."

"I don't care. I'm not staying."

He looked perplexed.

"Maybe you can get your money back."

The truth is, I wasn't really worried about it.

Just at that moment, two girls came up and inquired about a room. They obviously walked in the heat and the humidity from the boat. The guy tells him he is now fully booked. They were travel weary and frustrated.

I handed them the key to my old room, "Here you go...this one is paid for the next 2 nights. Enjoy!"

They couldn't believe their luck! "Seriously????"

"Yep, I just need to get my bag out of there."

"'re an ANGEL!"

It turns out they were traveling for a year and on a very meager budget. "We'll buy you a drink at the pub!"

No worries. I figured it was good backpacker karma.

They entered the room and said, "This is fine. We've stayed in worse."

I have too, but now I'm older and I've got a choice in the matter. I was not staying there....especially when contrasted with the room I got!

After the first day, I got a bad sunburn. Thankfully, staying out of the sun suddenly had an added appeal!

Post Tsunami on Ko Phi Phi

Sunset on one of Ko Phi Phi's beautiful horseshoe-shaped bays

Phi Phi island is located in the Andaman Sea, off the coast of Thailand. It is predominantly limestone, and features stunning spires off the coast. Three hours by boat from the mainland town of Phuket, for years, Phi Phi was an "insider's" paradise. As I understand it, five years ago, there were less than 10 tourist shops, no paved roads, and small huts on the beach.

Ko Phi Phi was severely damaged by the tsunami on December 26th, 2004. I went to the island to see not only the legendary beauty of the limestone spires, but also to see the progress made after the devastating tsunami. This photo shows the shape of the island. The water from the tsunami intensified as it was forced through the horseshoe bay. The isthmus connecting the two bays is only 3 meters above sea level, and this area is also where the heaviest concentration of tourists is located.

Backpackers and tsunami warnings...

Today the island is on the radar for backpackers and the well-heeled alike. 21 months after the tsunami, there is still a significant amount of construction. While I was there, investment for large scale projects ensured construction was continuous...7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

Being on an island has also impacted the recovery effort. Every brick, bag of cement, nail, and qualified employee has to be brought over by boat. All the remnants of the tsunami's destruction that could not be burned, also has to leave by boat. Construction materials and wages are 3-5 times higher than on the mainland. Piles of old mattresses, broken cinder blocks, shards of corrugated metal, and mountains of sandbags all claim ground wherever there is not a current construction project.

On the way to the beach...

Since the tsunami, not only is tourist lodging at a premium (thankfully I was traveling during the low season), but so is permanent housing. Buildings that were obviously still under construction were being inhabited by work crews. Walls waiting for glass shipments, donned lines of laundry drying in the sun.

I'd like to say I had a normal "beachy" time on Ko Phi Phi, but the remnants of the tsunami were still very much an impact and consequently never far from my mind...

Common Thai Cooking Ingredients

My list is in no way comprehensive, but it's a solid overview of typical fresh and dried Thai ingredients.
For a more comprehensive list, check out the Thai Food Ingredients website.
Also, for more elaborate descriptions of specific ingredients, consult one of my favorite resources...The Asian Food Glossary.

Peppercorns on the plant

Kaffir Lime Leaf

(recognized by the double segmented leaf, equal in size)


Like the Kaffir Lime leaf, except this has a lemon essence. Recognized by the double segmented leaf, but the thorns and the 1st leaf segment are shorter.


Galangal (The tall plant with the broad leaves)

The root is used in Thai cooking. It's a strong flavor similiar to ginger.



Fresh red chili known as a "big red" or "finger" chili (mild in flavor)


Kaffir lime leaf
Cherry tomato
Pea eggplant (these have a thick skin and are bitter)
Green Grapes (the dish I prepared had them in the curry)
Fresh green peppercorns
Thai basil


Dry components for Thai red curry paste

Corriander seeds
Cumin seeds
Cardamom pods (yes, really. In the US we have a different variety)
Black peppercorns
Mace (the pale vine-like outer layer of fresh nutmeg)
Long green peppercorns (conical shaped in appearance)
Dried Thai "big red" or "finger" chilies

Fresh Ingredients for Thai red curry paste

Corriander root
Shallot (Thai shallots are much smaller than those typically found in the US)
Kaffir lime peel
Ginza (already minced)
Shrimp paste ("smells like hell, tastes like heaven")

Small Fresh Green Chili, refered to in my class as "rat dropping chili"

This is the hottest Thai chili.

Dried fish


Multiple kinds of rice: Thai long-grain (Jasmine), sticky, and toasted

Food Finds in Thailand


No introduction to Thailand would be complete without a mention about THE BUCKETS. When the sun begins to set, if you are anywhere near a beach these buckets will be prominently featured at restaurants, bars, and anywhere selling cold drinks.

For a mere $5, you get a hip flask of Thai whisky, a can of Coca-cola, a Red Bull energy drink...and a straw. If you're lucky, you may even get some ice.

Pour the entire contents into the bucket...and drink.

Word of warning...while the buckets may be cheap, they're pretty much a guaranteed hangover. Many days have been spent on the beach...recovering from THE BUCKETS.


Branding gone too far? Starbucks logo on a moon cake


Packaged nori at 7-11


The Dreadlock Shop sings "The Sticky Rice Blues..."


At this restaurant you can have your laundry done, book a trek or your transportation out of town, AND enjoy the city's the SECOND best pizza


Sex sells...ramen noodles


Sex drinks


This was labeled as a "gourmet" sandwich. White bread with crusts trimmed, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, mango?, cheese, and shredded carrot.


Continental breakfast includes mini hot dogs


Grilled "sausages". For the most part, these were filled with rice.


Snack cart


I have no idea what this guy is selling...but I love this picture. You can't see it very well, but he's sporting an Elvis t-shirt.

Fruit & Vegetable Carving 101

Lotus blossom carved out of a plum tomato

As I discussed earlier, food in Thailand is very important. There's an artisan sensibility about it. One night I splurged on a dinner at a lovely restaurant. Each dish came with a different garnish....chrysanthemums carved out of root vegetables, the most delicate leaves carved out of carrots, etc. It was so beautiful (see photo below).

One day, my cooking class kicked off with a lesson in vegetable carving. My only brag-worthy effort was a rose carved out of a plum tomato. Above, the instructor is demonstrating the method for carving a lotus blossom. It's extremely delicate work as you trim the interior around the cluster of seeds. I enjoyed this aspect of the class very much and when I learned I could schedule a private session, I booked it immediately.

My class was with Roong and she was an excellent instructor (see examples of her work here).

We started by carving a rose out of the flesh and rind of a watermelon. The knife is like an exacto knife with a long curved blade. I'd never seen anything like it and it took me a long time just to get the feel of how to use the knife properly. Adjusting the angle of the blade as you cut through the rind, I'd cut past the deep green exterior to reveal the pale rind and red flesh. First use a steep angle to make the petals thin, then point the blade differently to express the base of the petal as it gets thicker. Trim out the excess flesh to reveal the petals, being careful not to cut too far or you lop of the petal that you just cut.

Um, yeah. I did that.

"No worry," Noong assured me.

"We have Thai super glue."

She picked up the dislodged petal and put it back in its place, secured with a toothpick--which was cleverly concealed. Nice!

Concentrating on my cutting, she kept saying, "Be happy! Smile, be hap-py!" and she'd then break into a chorus of "Don't happy now."

I'm a long way from needing a kit like this, but I did send 3 knives home. I'm looking forward to playing with those....and keeping my Thai super glue handy!

(Above) Carvings from my private class: Roses made out of small, round watermelons (the watermelons in the US are larger and oblong shaped), white swans and leaves out of daikon radishes, and small swans out of plum tomatoes. Eyes are black peppercorns. Beaks are carved carrots or the tip off red chilis.

Chrysanthemum carved out of a root vegetable

Lessons from the Backpacker Trail

On my first trip to Thailand, I traveled with my friend Alison. We rented a hut on a white corral beach with a pristine ocean view. The accommodations were humble...perhaps only a step above camping, but the beach was amazing. We paid the grand sum of $3 a night, total.

Back in Seattle, I'd stare into my latte cup and think, for the same price as my coffee...I could be staying in paradise.

Traveling never really finds me flush with cash. With a meager budget, often I'll stay in cheaper accommodations so I can take advantage of other things. Guest houses and hostels are inexpensive places to stay, and there you'll find other travelers who have a wealth of information to share.

Every morning, I'd stumble down for breakfast. Inevitably, this is where networking is at its best. Where have you been? Who has the good tours? What did you see? What would you recommend? Where are you from...and where are you going?

I'd meet all kinds of travelers. Most had been on the road for months traveling South East Asia and Australia/New Zealand. Occasionally I'd meet someone who was on an around the world trip--customized tickets to circle the globe. One girl had been in South Africa, Venezuela, Australia, Thailand, then on to India before returning to London.

No doubt, most of my fellow travelers were on the trip of a lifetime.

Immersing yourself in other cultures challenges commonly held beliefs. It begins to wear away the division between "I'm right, you're wrong." At some point you just begin to accept that things are done differently. That's all.

No right.

No wrong.

Just different.

Through multiple border crossings, busses, trains, rickshaws, overland, waiting in endless lines, heat, rain, dust, and sweat...stripped of comforts and often your dignity, you learn what to appreciate what really matters.

On the backpacker trail, there's a common bond. I find an openness and a sense of welcome that is readily shared. No matter how long you've been on the road, we've all been disoriented--bewildered by another culture or custom. Inevitably we've all had some seemingly prized possession stolen...and then were grateful it was gone. We've sacrificed and lived without...and discovered how easy it is to live without the burden of stuff. Down to the barest essentials, you find things are much more enjoyable when you have only what's necessary.

After dragging my pack from one place to another, I'd open my bag and examine each item. Do I really need this?

Now that I'm home, I'm doing the same thing. I'm living the life expected in the Western World, but the backpacker imprint has made its mark.

Each item I touch, I examine and I really need this?

Cooking in Thailand

Dry ingredients for curry paste

Based on great recommendations from my friends Connie and Becky, when I arrived in Chiang Mai, I immediately signed up for cooking classes. Several places in the city now teach Thai cooking, but the Chiang Mai Thai School of Cookery was the first. I was so impressed, I can't imagine how they could be improved. Trust me, I've taken a ton of cooking classes and this place was really special.

I befriended one of the cooking school instructors and happily became his pet. After every dish I prepared, Ollie would come along and say, "Taste. What does it need?"
We'd taste the dish together and discuss the flavor. I'd either get his seal of approval (which was very rare) or he'd say, "You like that?" which translated as "I recognize your personal choice, but do you really like that?"

It was no stretch for me to look befuddled and say, "I don't know. What do you think?"

"I think it needs more lime and just a touch of tamarind juice," which he would swiftly add to my dish.

Then we'd taste again.

He'd smile and in his English with a beautiful British lilt, Ollie would finally give his endorsement, "Yes. That's bettah."

Lessons learned:

- Thai cooking is FAST and mise en place is very important. Have everything cut and portioned before you begin.

- When cooking with fish sauce, try adding it last. Why? The longer it cooks, the saltier it gets.

- Cheap fish sauce is really salty and often made with snails, not fish. For good fish sauce, the darker the color, the higher the quality...and typically, less salty.

- Green Thai chilies are younger...and spicier. (Like people, young chillies have more fire!)

- Traditional Thai cooking uses 3 different kinds of basil:

Holy Basil or Purple Basil has a purple stem and leaves. It has a hot flavor and is used for stir fries. It's added at the last minute.

Lemon Basil has a light green stem and leaves. It has a lemony flavor and is used in soups, salads, and curries--especially those containing seafood. It's added at the end.

Sweet Basil has a purple stem and dark green leaves. It has an aniseed flavor and can be used in all types of dishes including curries, stir-fries and curry pastes. It is often used as a garnish. This is the most common type of basil found.

Here's one of my favorite recipes from the class:

Fried Fish with Chili and Basil
(Plaa Nin Laad Prik Bai Horapa)

from the Chiang Mai Cooking School

10 oz pan fried fish fillets (cod, haddock, plaice, halibut, or red mullet)


2 tablespoons oil
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 onion, chopped
5 medium red chilies, thinly sliced (fresh)
1 big red chili, sliced*
1 big green chili, sliced*
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock or water
3/4 cup sweet basil leaves
1/2 cup coriander, chopped

* Note: These chillies are different than commonly found in the US. For the big red chilli, substitute 1/2 medium red pepper. For the big green chili, substitute 1 small Anaheim or 1/2 medium green pepper.

Deep fry the fish fillets in very hot oil until crispy and cooked through.

To make the sauce, put the oil in a hot wok and add the garlic, onion and chilies. Fry until the garlic starts to turn brown. Then add the fish sauce, soy sauce, and chicken stock. Fry for 1 minute. Add the basil leaves and stir fry well to combine.

Turn off the heat and pour the sauce over the fish. Garnish with the coriander.