A Day For Learning and Fun at a Thai Hill Tribe Village

Last week I had the good fortune to visit a Hill Tribe village in Northern Thailand. This trip was not arranged by a tour agency, but by an industrious Thai family who want to help the Hill Tribe people to adjust to our changing world so they won’t be left behind. An opportunity surfaced when Nui, the brother of my friend, Toi, came up with the brilliant idea to organize a cooking class with sticky rice as its star and his sister, a creative cook, to direct the show.

Every February the Karen, Lisu, Arka, and Lahu tribes in the Mai Suai district have a Sticky Rice Festival to celebrate their culture and to make a little bit of merit. It’s no surprise that food becomes the main draw with the help of sticky rice, a staple in this part of Thailand. To add more excitement to their celebration, they hold a contest to determine which village can produce the most creative use for sticky rice.

Now the thing is – sticky rice, by itself, is almost tasteless, and truth be told looks like a ball of glue! Commonly known as sweet or glutenous rice…with no gluten in it….it is mostly used as a staple to every meal or added to other foods to make yummy desserts such as, mango sticky rice; as a vegetable mixed with beans or taro and wrapped in banana leaf; or an ingredient in wine. The challenge for Toi was to introduce a new way to use the sticky rice making it tasty as well as eye appealing…and help this village to win the coveted distinction of producing the most innovative way to use it.

When we arrived at the village, the ladies were all decked out in their finest clothing. Some were wearing their traditional dress which I was glad to see because like most Thai, even those in the more remote areas, they are adopting our Western form of dress. Some of the girls are into recycling old clothing creating their own clothes and shoes as shown in the picture below.

Then, there was this pair of two year old twins who were especially cute with their mother who is dressed in a traditional Karen outfit.

The first step to creating new ways for using the sticky rice was to take the already cooked rice (often leftover rice is used) and pound it to a pulp.

Aided by a heavy bamboo stake, we all took our turn which we discovered was the most tiring part of the process.

This also explained why we had some males in the class.

Once the rice was ready, the large sticky balls were cut up into small portions with a long piece of bamboo leaf. This was the perfect tool as the rice couldn’t stick to it as it would have with a knife.

Step two was to take the small rice balls and roll them out with a glass beer bottle. We discovered that the village didn’t know what a rolling-pin was so they had to improvise with the bottles. We decided then and there we would have to get them some rolling pins. Nevertheless and to our amazement, the finished patties or pancakes looked just like a tortilla.

Step three was to use the various ingredients provided by Toi, such as seasonal fruit, black beans, taro, pumpkin, pork, and mayonnaise… which the ladies weren’t familiar with but absolutely loved…. to create a filling for the patties. At first a they were a tad hesitant, but eventually caught on to the potential of what they could do with the food displayed before them and began to immerse themselves into the wonderful act of creating something new.

By this time the laughter and fun had drawn a considerable crowd of curious onlookers waiting to have a sample of their creations. Someone decided to take the finished product one more step so set up a wok, filled it with oil, and began to deep fry some of the wraps. They were delicious and gobbled up immediately!

At the end of the demonstration, we were treated to a typical Hill Tribe meal of… your guessed it!… sticky rice and various dishes consisting of  copious amounts of green vegetables, some spicy and some not so.

The ladies who prepared our meal in their kitchen.

The appreciation of the participants was still evident as we packed up and said our ‘good byes’. Everyone felt it had been a success which was confirmed not only by Nui, but also his assistant who was there representing the local Municipal District Council.

Bringing together the four tribes of women…and some men …. to learn something new and to have fun doing it with the thought that maybe they would be the winner of the contest was a beginning. However, Nui would like to see them take the idea and use it as a possible money-maker for the area. He has his finger in a few other money-making projects it appears, so this could be one more if they are interested. Up to this point the women and men have been making beautiful crafts to sell which has served them well, but it would be remiss if they didn’t get in on the growing interest that tourists are developing for eating local foods that are different and also tasty. He sees an opportunity for them to enter this flourishing market niche with sticky rice as the leader. Wraps could very well be just the beginning.

I think he and Toi are on the right track as the Thai government is recognising the need to alleviate  the poverty that exists in the North by not only promoting more tourism there, but also providing more incentives for learning new skills. However, the most important thing here will be the follow-up to this wonderful day of fun and learning. The seed has been planted, but now the local ‘powers that be’ will have to continue to work with those who are eager to try something new. They will need more education and close supervision as to how to access information and enforce the laws regarding safe food preparation.

Change won’t be easy for them, but with encouragement they could easily learn the skills required for such a project to help them become a more sustainable village. In the meantime, we can wish them well in winning the prize for the most innovative sticky rice product at the upcoming Sticky Rice Festival.

Chiang Mai’s Race For Tourist Dollars

“What is old is new again.”

Some noteworthy person must have said this somewhere or at some time so I can’t take the credit for coining this. However, whatever its origin, the words aptly fit my impressions of what is happening in Chiang Mai right now.

This Northern Thai city is undergoing a restoration and building boom, at least in the inner city which is that part surrounded by a moat. If you want further information on the moat and the remains of the wall that defines the character of this ancient city, then do refer to the blog I posted three years ago: click on  A Precious Gift

A past picture of the moat with fountains on.

Where are the fountains this year?

The first sign of the changes occurring in the inner city, the most touristy part, surfaced as I walked down Phrapokktao Rd. and spotted a few wats undergoing huge renovations. Wat Jedlan captured my interest so I decided to take a closer look at it. I wasn’t disappointed and wondered how I had managed to miss in on all my previous visits. The grounds are spacious and beautifully manicured. However, the buildings are old and in need of repair so, hence, the restoration.

Massive construction going on here.

The next day as I headed to the Sunday Street Market, I noticed that Prah Singh, Chiang Mai’s largest and wealthiest wat, was sporting a glamorous new outfit in gilded gold.

Looking good.

There is definitely a sense of competition going on between the numerous wats in this fair city. They are unabashedly out to get the tourists’ dollars not just with visitor donations but lately by charging them fees to enter. Chedi Luang, the second most sacred and grandiose wat in Chiang Mai, is one of those doing that. The lineup of people waiting to enter reminded me of those horrendous lineups you have to contend with in cities like Rome or Paris. I hope it never gets to that, but then with the droves of Chinese tourists coming here, this could happen.

If a wat doesn’t charge entrance fees then they may resort to renting out some of their valuable land to vendors for selling their wares during the big Saturday and Sunday Night Walking Street Markets which grow larger every year. Click on Shopping the Markets in Chiang Mai

Prah Singh’s entrance to Sunday Market.

Another wat renting out a rest and eating area for market shoppers.

It’s not just wats that are getting a make over: it’s also the accommodations and restaurants in this city. Hearing that at least two of the guest houses I used to stay in…Pachkit House and Baan Nam Sai.. were now facing the wrecking ball, I made it my quest to check both of them out. Sure enough they are both receiving major new face lifts.

Destroying the old Pachkit house for the new.

What’s left of the original.

How can this be happening? In most cases, it’s about money from China which is enticing to family owned businesses who want to retire and leave the hard work to those who have the money and plans for the future. Thailand faces the same problems as all developed countries these days…an aging population along with earlier retirement. China on the other hand which also faces an aging population, but also a thriving younger middle class and a much larger population, is looking for other places to visit where it’s cheaper and exciting. Thailand and in fact all SE Asia is one of their first places to go to before they hit Europe. Those entrepreneurs who have the money see Thailand and its neighbours as great places to invest in since all of them are still bringing in huge amounts of tourist dollars from the West.

What all this change means for us flashpackers…what older backpackers have been dubbed… is less inexpensive accommodations at our disposal. The little family run guest houses are being converted to what is commonly known now as boutique hotels which are smaller and less expensive than the 5 stars but still far more than the traditional guest house.

One of the flourishing boutique hotels.

For backpackers who are younger with a minimal budget, there are the hostels where they must share a room with others in a more communal setting. Still entrenched in my old ways, I avoid these and look for the small guest houses. When I first started coming to Chiang Mai it was easy to rent a room on a monthly or a weekly basis but not so now. If I want to stay in the centre, I will most likely have to pay by the night. Those places offering monthly rates are more likely to be found out in the suburbs and even those should be booked early because they are snatched up quickly. Here you can find a condo or house to rent, but as I discovered last year has its disadvantages. Transportation is the biggest drawback unless you are the adventurous sort and rent a motor bike to get around. My post from last year titled “Is Chiang Mai Losing Its Allure” will give you a better idea of the pros and cons. Click here Is Chiang Mai Losing It’s Allure?

My condo apartment out near the airport from last year.

Like most people when I first saw the construction and heard the jack hammers, I was a bit disgusted. How could Chiang Mai yield so willingly to the tearing down of their storied past for the new opulence of the future? On second thought, I realised it’s simply their way of surviving. If they don’t join the wave of the future where there is literally a tsunami of Chinese tourists descending upon them, then they stand to lose a big chunk of their economy, and like all countries they can’t afford to do that. Sure all this change will just lead to other problems but somehow they will find a solution for them and so on it goes. What would CM or any of us do if we never had problems to solve? Now here is some food for thought….

A typical Thai building still standing.

Let’s hope it doesn’t meet a similar fate.

Making way for the new.