Khon Kaen Eats

After being in Khon Kaen for over 3 months, I think I can finally write about the food here and do it justice. Before I came to Thailand, the only Thai food that I had tried was pad Thai. That was only one time and about a month before I left. People who had traveled to Thailand before told me that the food here is delicious. While that is true, Isaan region (where Khon Kaen is) food is in its own league. It is SPICY. I quickly learned in the first few days here to say “mai pet” (no spice) and more recently “nid noi pet” (a little spice). Progress! Not only is the food great in Khon Kaen but it’s easy to find a meal for less than 30 baht (1 USD).

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The best pad Thai in Khon Kaen – at the night market

Most of the Thai restaurants and markets here serve variations of the same thing. A common option is a scoop of rice with stir-fried vegetables, a fried egg and pork or chicken. Thais generally eat pork over chicken. A restaurant across from my apartment, “Tbar” has one of my favorite meals to eat. It’s just chicken, rice, vegetables and some delicious sauce.

 

If you don’t get something with rice then the base is probably noodles. There are a lot of different places that serve simple soups with ramen or rice noodles, some greens and chicken or pork. Another noodle dish is “suki”, which has glass noodles, cooked with egg, vegetables and some type of meat or seafood. Of course, there is pad Thai, one of the most common Thai dishes to foreigners. It’s one of my favorite dishes to get here and over the first few weeks I found the place to get it; a vendor at the Khon Kaen University night market.

 

Eating lots of white rice or noodles can get boring at times so after exploring different restaurants and the night market, I’ve found options for something lighter. There’s a vendor at the night market that has a salad bar, a restaurant that has a dish with chicken, jasmine rice and a small salad and there’s street food vendors everywhere that sell skewers. Other common Thai dishes that don’t fall into the noodle or rice category are Thai green curry and sum tom (papaya salad). Som tum is a very spice dish made with papaya, tomatoes, beans and peanuts.

 

 

Last but not least, I’ve noticed that Thai people really know how to satisfy a sweet tooth. There are dozens of cafes within walking distance of my apartment that are usually open past midnight. It’s where you’ll find most KKU students studying after class and at night. The menu isn’t like a typical cafe in the U.S. The coffee has loads of sugar and cream, there are pages of other sugary drinks (Thai tea, bubble tea) and the other half of the menu is dessert. Honey toast, waffles, brownies, cakes; these cafes have it all. I try to avoid doing work here but once in while we’ll go treat ourselves and get honey toast, a thick, sweetened piece of bread with ice cream, whipped cream, honey and fruit. A healthier option for something sweet are the fruit stands. A bag of fresh fruit – pineapple, mango, guava, watermelon, dragon fruit or papaya – for 20 baht. It’s my favorite snack in Khon Kaen.

 

Fall Break

Last week, CIEE gave students a ten day break and we all took this opportunity to get out of not only Khon Kaen but explore beyond Thailand. We all split off into a variety of groups, all looking for something different from our break. Some relaxing in Bali and the Philippines, some doing a week-long yoga retreat in Cambodia, seeing the Great Wall of China, traveling up Japan or just enjoying the beaches of Thailand. Zenya and I decided to spend the ten days busing around Cambodia and Vietnam.

Zenya and I started off the trip with a bus from Bangkok to Cambodia. We arrived in Siem Reap in the evening and took a tuk tuk to a hostel. We agreed beforehand that we would approach this trip as “we’ll figure it out as we go” so we didn’t book any hostels or tours beforehand. After dinner we went to explore the city and were surprised by how exciting it was and the liveliness of pub street. So much so we didn’t go to bed until 2 a.m. and woke up at 4 a.m. to make it to Angkor Wat for sunrise.

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the lively start to pub street in Siem Reap

Angkor Wat is a temple just outside of Siem Reap and is one of the largest religious sites in the world. We walked through the outer wall while it was still dark, not yet getting to see the true scale of it all. Even though we were with a crowd for sunrise, it was quiet. We sat by the reflection pools and watched the skies turn from indigo blue to a cotton candy blue and pink, as the sun slowly showed the magnitude of the temple. After the sunrise, Zenya and I entered the temple and walked through the many chambers, towers, courtyards and galleries and saw all of the symbolism that Angkor Wat is build upon. Angkor Wat is just one part of the much larger ancient city of Angkor. We spent the rest of the day exploring the different but just as impressive other parts of Angkor.

From Siem Reap, Cambodia we took an overnight bus to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The first day we went to the War Remnants Museum on the Vietnam War. It was thought provoking but also harrowing due to the graphic stories and images of prisoners of war, agent orange victims and war crimes. We spent almost 4 hours at the museum and it could have it’s own  blog post. That night we went on a bar crawl with our hostel and experienced a little bit of what makes Ho Chi Minh a worthwhile visit; the nightlife. The next morning before leaving for Hanoi, we were looking for something to do and ended up going to the Saigon Lookout Tower and got a view of the city then walked to see the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

Our flight (we would have loved to take the bus up the length of Vietnam but time didn’t allow that) landed in Hanoi that night. We were in Hanoi this time just to sleep and took a bus the next morning to Sa Pa, in the northwest of Vietnam. We spent our two days here walking around the small hillside town and doing a trekking tour. Being used to Thailand’s heat and humidity, I was wrapped up in blankets in the evening when it got down to 60 degrees. The 16 km trekking tour took us through the rice paddies, three villages and we learned how the locals cultivate the land on the side of the mountains.

From Sa Pa to Ha Long Bay we took another overnight bus to Ha Long. The bus got in at 3 a.m. and as Zenya and I walked half asleep to a hostel we laughed and noted that traveling in Southeast Asia is not for everyone. The next day we took a boat tour to Ha Long Bay. It is a place that I have wanted to see for a long and the beauty exceeded my expectations. The bay is scattered with more than 3,000 limestone cliff islands with rain forests growing on top. Even though the weather was overcast that day, the clouds gave the area a mysterious feel as we kayaked around and explored a cave in the bay.

That night when we were walking around to find dinner we realized that Ha Long is a very quiet town. But when we finished our dinner at a hostel restaurant, a group of Brits invited us over to play king’s cup. We ended up having an unexpected fun night in Ha Long, filled with card games, a failed attempt to find a karaoke bar and then ordering fries and more beers at a random street food restaurant.

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Some of the British friends we met

On Saturday we got to Hanoi, the last part of our travels. Zenya and I explored the streets of Old Quarter and immediately felt immersed with the locals. This was a nice change because Ho Chi Minh felt geared towards tourists. We enjoyed out last night of break at the hostel playing fusball, beer pong and then going on a bar crawl.

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entrance to Old Quarter in Hanoi

It’s taken me almost a week to get around to writing this post because I’ve been reflecting on all of my experiences in those quick 10 days. While I wrote a general overview of my travels, the real excitement from traveling is in the details – the people you meet, the unexpected plans and realizing the reality of a destination is far better than your imagination. This trip gave me that unique, almost indescribable “traveling feeling”. It’s a new open mindedness,  a sense of freedom, curiosity and awe. Multiple times throughout the week, Zenya or I would abruptly say some variation of, “Did that actual happen?”


Some of the traditional food I tried throughout Vietnam and Cambodia

Vang Vieng

On Friday after our week in Vientiane, a group of us ventured up to Vang Vieng, well-known place to backpackers, for the weekend. That night we went to a “jungle party” as advertised by the hostel but was just a fun group of tiki bars…with fire limbo. On Saturday we did a float down the river. It was like bar-hopping but in a tube, with small tiki bars and stunning views along the way. For dinner we stopped on our walk back from the river and got a sandwich from a street vendor. It was 15,000 kip (~1 USD) and was the size of my face packed with bacon, chicken and veggies.

 

On Sunday we had a few hours before our van back to Khon Kaen so we got up early and went to the “blue lagoon”. Again, the views were unreal. Someone in our songthaew said “Damn, is this National Geographic cover?” and that’s the best way I can describe it. We only a short time at the lagoon but made the most of it. I took a few runs on the zip line, enjoyed the refreshing water and ventured off to a viewpoint.

 

Our journey back to Khon Kaen was eventful. The first half of the drive, which was to the border of Lao and Thailand involved a windy bumpy road, which felt like every few feet was a pothole. Luckily, I had a whole bench to myself and endured the four hour ride in a fetal position trying to ignore the nausea and my head banging against the wall. We survived that leg of the trip, crossed the border and made it to Nong Khai bus station where we would get a bus back to Khon Kaen. Once we got there and asked the bus drivers for tickets to Khon Kaen, they told us “Mai” (no) and motioned for us to sleep on the bench. Apparently, there weren’t anymore until 7 a.m. because the bus got into an accident. After some negotiating and talking with someone at CIEE, we were able to hire one of the drivers to get a van to bring us back that night. I got home around 12 a.m., tired but my mind still filled thinking about my favorite weekend of my study abroad trip (so far).

An Impactful Week in Laos

Last week was our week long international comparison study with my public health management in Thailand class. The goal of this trip was to compare the health systems of two different countries in Southeast Asia. We were staying in a hotel in Vientiane, the capital. During the day, the public health program would go on site visits – a central level hospital (in Vientiane), district level and a health center for the villages. The central level hospital is the highest level of care in the country, which was shocking due to some basic health care not available. Very few surgeries are performed because there are three operating rooms and only one is sterile. The wards are crammed with 40 beds per room. This hospital is the only one in the country that provides chemotherapy. They are severely understaffed, with only one doctor working on one of the inpatient wards (about 30 patients). The district level hospital and health center were more remote, with more limited and poorer quality health care given.

Laos is classified as a least developed country for many reasons but one of those being their health care system. The Lao government spends 1.4% of their GDP on health care. The leading cause of hospital visits is infectious disease as opposed to noncommunicable disease as in most developed countries. A big issue in Lao is peoples’ accessibility to health care. Some villages don’t know that there is a nearby health care center due to poor communication systems. It’s common for villagers in more rural areas to never have seen a doctor in their life. Even if they are aware of a center nearby, the country’s lack of infrastructure can create a barrier. The roads are poor and are usually washed out during rainy season.

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The 4 bed emergency room at the district hospital

Another site visit was to COPE, which provides physical rehabilitation, orthotics and prosthetics. Most of their patients are those who have suffered from the unexploded bombs that were dropped in Laos during the Vietnam War. President Obama visited here during his presidency, recognizing the work they do. We went to the visitor center, which went into detail on the impact the bombs have had on the people of Lao. It is the highest bombed country per capita in the world. In 7 years there were 580,000 bombing missions on Lao, primarily along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Not all of the cluster bombs that were dropped exploded, so even decades later they are still exploding. This visit was eye-opening to learn about this overlooked part of history and also to see COPE working to provide these services free to people.

While I wasn’t going on site visits during the day, we had free time to explore Vientiane. It happened to be a holiday the week we were there. The street along the river was packed with vendors and games. One night we went down to the Mekong River because part of the holiday was the Lao people were setting off homemade mini boats with candles into the river. It is a tradition of good luck. On Friday morning we visited Buddha Park, an area with a bunch of different sized Buddhas in different stages of life.

Bangkok

The weekend of October 20th I had a long weekend because there were no classes on Friday. I had a few ideas about what I wanted to do. A few of my friends were going to Pai, which is in northern Thailand. It’s supposed to be beautiful but the trip there required a 15 hour bus ride. I hadn’t been to Bangkok yet and I wanted to do a solo trip during my time here so I was excited for the opportunity and booked a bus ticket to Bangkok!

I got off the bus at 4 a.m. on Friday morning and negotiated with the songthaeow driver from 400 baht to 250 baht for the drive to my hostel. When I showed up at my hostel, the bars were up, the lights were off and I could’t see anyone, even though they said they had 24 hour reception. This was the only time on the trip I thought, “What the heck am I doing?” Luckily, I worked it out and I wasn’t stuck on the streets of Bangkok for the rest of the night.

My first day in Bangkok I spent sightseeing by taking the ferry boat down the Chao Phraya River. I went to Wat Arun (“Temple of Dawn”), a flower market and Chinatown. On the way back from the ferry ride, I walked down Khao San Road. It is well known as the backpacker hub of Southeast Asia. It’s filled with hostels, open air bars with lively music, food vendors and even a McDonald’s. I had phad thai for dinner, which I have to say didn’t compare to my favorite phad thai vendor in Khon Kaen.

On Saturday I was up early for the drive to go to the train market and floating market. The train market was exactly what it sounds like; it was along the train tracks, which a train actually still takes quite frequently. I was there when it came by and when the vendors heard the train slowly coming, they casually moved their overhangs in and any of the produce that might get crushed. After the train market, I went to the floating market, which is along the canals an hour outside of Bangkok. I took a slow paddle longboat ride around the market.

My bus ride back to Khon Kaen was later that night. It was a quick two days in Bangkok but I had enough time to do what I wanted. Bangkok was a very exciting city. I enjoyed my solo trip there and I found it helpful that I had a previous experience traveling alone. It made being in the overwhelming city more manageable. I’ve heard from people that they didn’t enjoy Bangkok, usually for the reasons that it is too busy, it’s too humid to walk around, there’s not much to do or it’s only for people who want to stay in nice hotels with rooftop bars and shop. I wasn’t expecting to love Bangkok but I was pleasantly surprised. I’ve heard it called the “Venice of Southeast Asia” because of the canals coming off of the Chao Phraya River. I wouldn’t go that far but it definitely had some charm mixed in with the hustle and bustle. The temples in Bangkok were numerous and unique; Wat Arun is one of my favorite temples I’ve been to in Thailand. The energy of the city is infectious. Even though I’d been up since 4 a.m., I found myself exploring the city in all my free time. And, of course, the food. I wasn’t looking to go to an expensive rooftop restaurant but I found my 1 USD street or cafe food just as delicious. I could’ve spent a few more days enjoying the variety of food in Bangkok. Looks like it’s worth another visit!

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The “Venice of Southeast Asia”?

Many Weekend Trips!

After getting adjusted in Khon Kaen, the last two months (already?!) have been a whirlwind of traveling most weekends, projects and quizzes and staying in the village every other week. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had many short but amazing weekend trips around Thailand.

In the middle of September a group of us skipped out on a weekend in Bangkok and decided to go camping in Nam Phong National Park for a night,isn’t. We stopped at Tesco (the Walmart of Thailand) and picked up a few tents and lots of snacks. Later on we found that a 3 person tent is more the size for a single person. The weekend was spent walking with one of the National Park guides through a trail that looked like it hadn’t been traveled in a while, watching the sunset at a viewpoint and staying there for hours after dark, enjoying the clear skies and stars.

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Sunset at Nam Phong National Park

A few weekends after the camping trip, we took a 12 hour overnight bus ride to Chiang Rai. The bus ride was an experience in itself. Getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night required incredible balance to avoid getting thrown into the walls of the 1×1 bathroom as the bus went through the mountains. While we were in Chiang Rai we tried going to a waterfall but it was closed because of rainy season caused currents were too strong. But we made the most of it! There was a road near the entrance to the waterfalls and we followed that for a few miles. We broke a sweat and got beautiful views out of it. We also visited the Wat Rong Khun “White Temple” and Wat Rong Seur Ten “Blue Temple”, walked around the night markets and enjoyed the laid-back nightlife. We got off our bus from Chiang Rai Monday morning and had two hours to pack and get ready for our first week long community stay; another exciting week!

The next weekend we went right from the community stay to another night traveling on the a bus. This time was to Hua Hin to just chill out on a beach. And that’s just about what I did the whole time. As soon as I got there on Saturday and until the bus to leave on Sunday, I was enjoying the sun and the ocean water that felt more like bath water.

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Hua Hin beach

The first weekend in October, CIEE sponsored an overnight trip for the program to Phu Pha Maan National Park. It was supposedly a camping trip but my friend and I were staying in a bungalow with a fan and a bathroom. I’d say it was “glamping”. Once we got there we took a quick hike up to the bat cave. As soon as I got to the top, the bats started swarming out at the top of the cave. Thousands and thousands of them kept on coming out.

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Bat Cave

The next morning we went on a 3.5 hour hike up the mountains around the national park, led by one of the national park rangers. With a machete, of course. It became clear quickly that this “hike” was more bushwhacking. I didn’t think I could have so much fun while dripping in sweat and branches hitting my face. Along the way, there were a lot of viewpoints that looked out to mountains and rock faces covered in vines, while in the opposite direction there was a vista of green farm land. It looked like a scene out of Jurassic park. We also reached another cave (no bats this time). A few of us decided to explore the cave a little more. We reached where the light from outside the cave didn’t reach and…kept going. We got to an area that opened up and as I shined my phone light around it looked like the inside of a small stadium. We turned our lights off and were quiet for a minute. It was complete darkness with just the sound of the bats, that were probably sleeping before a bunch of humans came in.

 

Nong Sang

It’s been an awesome week spent in my first village stay in Nong Sang. Nong Sang is a village 45 minutes from Khon Kaen and is one of the wealthier villages we will visit. This site visit is for my community public health class. We were in the village to assess the needs of the community. Each person spent the week interviewing and observing villagers to learn about a topic that interested them. With the information we gather and the input from the villagers, we will determine the priority needs of the village. When we go back in November, we will do some intervention based off of this information.

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Testing how well I know Thai with a villager


My topic was diabetes management in rural Thailand. I learned a lot about diabetes in the village but the most memorable part of this week for me was spending time with the villagers. Me and four other girls in the program lived with my meh (mom), her 5 year old grandson and her parents in her home. We slept on a mattress, surrounded by our mosquito net that saved us from waking up with hundreds of bites. Our shower was outside in a hut with two containers of water and a bucket to pour the water over you. What really made the experience was the cockroaches, lizards and spiders in the hut with me.

During the days everyone in the program met at one of our family’s home and we all helped our mehs cook the meals. The food was always fresh and delicious and there was always more than enough food for all of us. If I wasn’t meeting with people in the village then I was either at the primary school, helping out on the guava farm, visiting an integrated farm with bananas, passion fruit and rice or enjoying the slow village life and taking a nap.

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Cooking vegetables and pork to be put over sticky rice


What stood out to me in the village is their strong sense of community. The focus here is the village’s needs not the needs of each individual villager. They are self-sustained and one of the few things they rely on from outside is bottled drinking water. Each week the villagers meet at the temple, most of the families own a farm and everyone’s home has an “open door policy”. Independence isn’t an important thing and it would probably negatively impact them since so much of their village relies on helping each other.

I should be used to it by now, but I was again surprised by the their hospitality. All of the villagers were kind, selfless and welcoming. The mehs woke up at 5 a.m. so they could get their chores done and still start getting breakfast ready. There was a death in the village in the middle of the week but everyone was just as friendly. I felt like a burden to be there but their friendliness and effort to make us feel welcome never changed.

We came to Nang Song to address the needs of the community. There are definitely things that should be changed to better the village’s health like the use of pesticides, the diabetes prevalence and garbage disposal but in reality, they actually have it figured out.  Everyone in the village has a smile on their face, the kids run around like any 5 or 10 year old would, the mehs got together one night for one of their birthdays and drank Chang and the older villagers relax on their porches.

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Students with our mehs, our ajans, and the dog “go”