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.

 

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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.