slice-of-thai.com Journal 3/13/99: Nong Khai and Chiang Mai

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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3/13/99

In Nong Khai I purchased a Kaen, a difficult to describe northeast Thailand reed instrument with a 2x5 array of (up to) 3 foot long bamboo pipes and a thing in the middle that you blow into to make sound while holding your fingers over some holes (told you it was hard to describe). Here's a picture that should clear things up:

Kaen: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Kaen
Click here if image does not load automatically.

Well maybe not. How about this one:

Kaen Again: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Kaen Again
Click here if image does not load automatically.

I later bought some books on how to play these instruments but of course they are in Thai so I have a lot of learning to do :)

When I brought it wrapped in some newspaper to the post office, the guy behind the counter immediately recognized it, ripped it out of the paper, and started playing it. Everyone in the post office started dancing and clapping to the music. This was good since I had never actually seen anyone play the instrument let alone dance to it. Then the staff told me they have no boxes big enough for it. They pointed out the post office window and repeatedly said "beah chop...beah chop." After some time, and some guessing, I eventually figured out that they wanted me to go across the street to the Beer Shop. There is a lady there who can take those little 6-can cardboard beer palletes and perform ancient and magical acts of cutting, taping, and tying to successfully contain any size and shape object, finishing up with a layer of carefully applied brown paper to make the packing job appear safe and professional. By this time the post office had closed, but I returned the next day to mail my item, safe in the knowledge that it was just as well packed as all the other items mailed out of Nong Khai.

I went to see Sala Kaew Ku, more commonly called Wat Khaek (Indian Temple), though the use of Khaek (Guest) to describe Indians, common throughout Thailand, is questionable. This is a place of worship created by an eccentric "yogi-priest-shaman" named "Luang Puu Bunleua Surirat" who mixes Buddhist, Hindu, western, and other symbolism into a most unbelievable mess (names are from LP, I didn't memorize them). On the grounds was an enormous sculpture garden, including 30-75 foot tall Buddhas, snakes and other creatures, gigantic walk-through cycle-of-life sculptures, and life-sized sculptures of the Buddha's desciples giving the Buddha the thumb's up ("Buddha—he's one cool dude") and pointing at him with the tackiest possible winky smile expressions on their faces.

Wat Huh?: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Wat Huh?
Click here if image does not load automatically.

This place proves absolutely once and for all that Thai people have a sense of humor. Many of the sculptures are dead ringers for the American comic strip "Bizarro," and I really wonder if the strip was inspired by this place. In the cycle-of-life sculpture, an old man with a megaphone sat spouting strange chants and poems (I guess) in Thai. Some Thai girls checking out the place looked as confused as me. The shrine was equally strange, with Buddhist sculptures inside and a mosque like appearance outside. This is a recommended stop for anyone travelling through Nong Khai. Across the river in Vientiane, Lao, there is a similar (but not quite as good) sculpture garden by the same guy known locally as the "Buddha park."

I also went up and down the Mekong on a floating restaurant boat with mostly Thai/Lao customers. It was interesting seeing how mystically the farangs who have not yet crossed the bridge view the distant Lao coast compared to those who had just returned.

3/14/99

It was more or less lastnight when I started to feel ill. For the next ten days I would experience a cascade of fever symptoms, different every day, that included basically everything except nausea (thank god for that, or Buddha I guess). For each of these days I would be quite weak, too weak to go hiking or do any long distance activities. But it could have been much worse.

I rapidly abandoned my original plan to proceed slowly to Chiang Mai through the remote and unpopulated Loei province. Instead, I headed straight for Udon Thani, a middle-of-nowhere town that had an airport and (supposedly) the best hospital in northeast Thailand. When you get a fever just after returning from the Lao People's Democratic Republic, you definitely want to stay close to medical care and a plane trip home.

With some trepidation I made my way to Udon's hospital but was pleasantly surprised to find a modern, clean, organized facility with sterilized needles and other perks. The English-fluent doctor spent about 20 minutes with me, we did two blood tests for malaria (negative fortunately), and we spent another 20 minutes discussing other possibilities (he didn't really know but said it could be a flu).

Upon leaving the hospital I was ready to enter the hellish swamp of paperwork required by my travel medical insurance when I recieved the final bill for—220 B ($5.94). After confirming that there was nothing wrong with the bill (decimal place, ...) I paid my dues and pondered why I had spent any money on travel medical insurance in the first place.

I purchased a plane ticket to Chiang Mai (ironically where my travelling companions were headed from Luang Prabang, sigh) and spent the evening wandering around the markets and such in the rather dull town of Udon Thani.

3/15/99

Flew to Chiang Mai. Randomly chose the Libra guesthouse out of the Lonely Planet after another guesthouse recommended by a friend turned out to be full. "Libra" was an unstrategic choice by the owners because "Libra" sounds basically the same as "River" for any taxi or tuk tuk driver in Chiang Mai, and there is a "River Guesthouse" on the other side of town!

I wasn't too healthy but I was well enough on this day to rent a bike and ride around town.

Almost everyone I had talked to about Chiang Mai had been there 3 or more years ago, more often 8 or more years ago. They all described a pleasant city with little or no traffic or car pollution, fair amounts of guesthouses, and lots of activities.

Well, Chiang Mai has now become a Bangkok-like, heavily traffic-congested and polluted city whose central 2 sq km moat area is so saturated with guesthouses, trekking companies, bars and cooking schools that it is damn hard to find a Thai person! It regularly took me 10 minutes to cross the streets that line the central moat area and the Ping river. During my stay in Chiang Mai, many travellers I met wrote off the city in one or two days and proceeded to some less spoiled destinations like Chiang Rai, Pai, Chiang Dao, and Mae Hong Son. I wasn't ready for this given the illness so I stuck it out here.

On my bike ride, I saw some folks playing a very cool game, halfway between volleyball and hackeysack, called takraw. I had seen this game all over Thailand. The ball is a little "woven rattan ball about 12 cm in diameter" (LP) and the players can kick or head the ball over the badminton-height net. To get the best speed when spiking the ball over the net, the players actually did a back flip of sorts so that they kicked the ball at head height, straight down onto the other player's side. Quite amazing. Another variation of takraw is more like traditional hackeysack, with a circle of people trying to keep the ball in the air. Another variation has a circle of people with a tiny basket suspended 10-20 feet in the air: the players had to kick or head the ball into the net!

I also visited the large night market in Chiang Mai. This has become a huge, awful tourist trap. Next to the Burger King, you will find city blocks of tacky stalls selling fake designer goods and endless carved wooden and metal trinkets. One of my favorites was a vendor selling designer Nike thongs (the kind with only the between-the-toe strap and no ankle straps) for $13.50. Nike doesn't make thongs, and thongs cost $2/pair! "Hill tribe women" in "traditional" costume, some of them as young as 12, buzzed around the market like flies, agressively selling costume trinkets from hats to earrings to bracelets. Given the rest of this market, I had some serious doubt about whether these women had ever even been to a hill tribe. Wooden puzzles and games were a popular sale item. A happy German with whom I was travelling bargained for these games in an interesting way: he challenged the vendors to a low price if he could solve the puzzle or beat them in the game!

While in this market I saw something quite amazing: a man with one leg was travelling around Chiang Mai on 2 crutches and 1 rollerblade! This is amazing given that the country has made little or no effort to add ramps to any street intersections or assure smooth sidewalks. This man was quite a bit more outgoing (and, frankly, more mobile) than any of us farangs with two legs! The only other thing like this I saw was a man getting around Bangkok on a wheelchair. All looked at him with great respect as he climbed and descended the city's many steep curbs.

That night, and many nights to come, I ate at a highly recommended restaurant called Aroon Rai. You can come back night after night and order neat-tasting dishes you can't find elsewhere. Some nights I even tried some items printed only in Thai.

3/16/99

As I was fevered and tired, I spent most of the day lounging around the guesthouse and environs. The place was run by three Thai sisters who could fairly be described as smartasses (but in a good way :). One of them would regularly tell guests that they were too stingy or too stinky so she couldn't help them. Sometimes the guests didn't know they were kidding and got quite offended. This was understandable since the sisters had not yet mastered the subtle tone shifts used for sarchasm in English. But the Chiang Mai tourist trade provided the guesthouse with a basically unlimited stream of farangs, so no problem :) Each morning one or two of the sisters would head to the bus or train station to "go fishing," which is what they call flagging down arriving tourists and guiding them to their guesthouse. Even in late March, the end of the high tourist season, there were so many fish in the sea that they could not help but to make a catch. The sisters definitely did not fit the typical Thai character; they were bold and impudent and quite outwardly concerned with the business success of the guesthouse. One sister had aquired the nickname "money penny." I stayed at the guesthouse for 10 days and every day they joked that I was not actually sick, but instead just trying to avoid buying the hill tribe trek they wanted to sell me (and everyone else at the guesthouse). It was all good fun, but my previous experience in Thailand had left me unprepared for this level of sarchasm and it took some getting used to.

I visited the nearest wat, Wat Chiang Man, and found it to be a very neat, relaxing place. I sat with my eyes closed on the floor of the wihaan, a large temple-like structure which houses an 1800 year old crystal Buddha and marble Buddha relief, for about an hour and twenty minutes just listening (after all, in my current wiped-out state, it was either that or sitting in my guesthouse room). Some people thought I was meditating. The wat was fairly isolated from the busy street noise, so the main sounds were the wind rustling the trees, the jingling of the hundred or so tiny bells hung of all the peaks of the wihaan's and bot's roof, birds chirping in the trees, and chickens crowing. This relaxing sound, which I probably could have recorded and made $1,000,000 selling under the Windham Hill label in the US, was interrupted only by this growly old Thai man selling chunks of supposedly 1000 year old rocks from the temple ruins to foreigners in order to raise money for continuing maintenance of the temple. The man was especially interested in the Japanese tourists and he would tell them that his operation was "not a business—donation—no tax."

Outside the wat there were Thais selling all sorts of religious gizmos, including incense, garlands, and flowers. One lady ran up to every farang and Thai who wandered by with a tiny cage holding 10-12 very unhappy birds. She insisted that we pay 20 baht to free a bird, which she says will gain us merit. Now, I'm no Buddhist, but even I can confidently conclude that there is no merit in freeing an animal that you trapped yourself! Many Thais I spoke with also despised this particular tradition.

3/17/99

Feeling a little better today, I got a bike and rode all around the central moat area of Chiang Mai. I was happy to discover that not all of the moat area is wall-to-wall guesthouses and trek shops, and that if you drive on the sois (tiny lanes) instead of the streets, you can have a peaceful and safe bike ride.

Somewhere in the southwest corner I ran across a most amazing shop that created unbelievably accurate copies of sculptures, reliefs, lintels, and other stone works, sometimes working only from photographs. They had an enormous garden and inside showroom of beautiful pieces including copies of the terra cotta soldiers from Xian in China, lintels I had seen in Phanom Rung in northeast Thailand, and other cool Buddha figures. A French guy visiting the place bought several thousand, possibly several hundred thousand, baht worth of goods (definitely in the hundreds of pounds range) for his new museum/gallery in Paris. He said he travels all over the world looking for product and this stuff was really good (and really cheap compared to his franc sales price!). I wonder if he was going to tell his customers that the items were copies! This shop can make custom pieces too; at your request they can make it look new or apply a special technique to make it look thousands of years old!

I ate dinner at a restaurant/cooking school where they served chicken cooked in pandan leaf and some neato hot sausage entree, supposedly northern specialties. Pretty nice.

3/18/99

I signed up for an all day cooking school called Tom Yam. Of the (at least) six cooking schools in town, only one is in the Lonely Planet and it taught up to 18 students a day in a hot outdoor setting with limited participation for 800 baht a day. Tom Yam taught 4 (maximum 6) students with close teacher attention in a cushy aircon out-of-town location for 700B. Again it's amazing what a review in this book can do for a business in Thailand.

We first drove to a market in the teacher's nice sedan (she definitely seemed to be loaded, which made me wonder why she bothered starting a cooking school :). She named and described to us many of the mysterious meats, fruits and vegetables we had seen hundreds of times before in markets all over Thailand. She was all worried that the meat section would put us off (where chunks of meat, pig's heads, and entrails sat on wooden tables with no packaging or refrigeration), but we were a stern bunch. We bought our food (included in the 700 B) and headed to a suburban luxury housing complex where her cooking school occupied a small but nice building. On this complex were 2-4 million baht houses and condos which would easily cost $2-4 million on the San Francisco penninusula in California. The complex even had a swimming pool, which we used around noon. Inside her aircon cooking school was a nice lounge area with a big stereo system playing yuppie new-age music, a dining room area where the first raw ingredients were already ready for our knife, and a gorgeous kitchen area with 6 spotless burners. As she explained each step of food preparation, her 2 assistants provided the raw materials (unchopped veggies, mortar and pestle (sp), chopped meats) with frightening efficiency. They had this whole cooking adventure down to a practiced science. She was even prepared with vegetarian alternatives for any guest who didn't want to prepare meat dishes.

We prepared the ingredients for three dishes in the morning, then cooked them, then relaxed in the pool, then we did three more in the afternoon. Each student completely prepared and cooked their own ingredients (with the exception of chopping the meat and measuring out oils and cocunut milk, which the assistants did before to save time). We made:

She left us with a recipe book complete with photographs of the dishes, so we'll see if I can remember anything.

In America, the cushiest, most comfortable schools are often the least authentic because the cooking school has had to substitute these perks for something which lacks in the instruction. I don't have any experience with Thai cooking that would tell me if the same principle applies in Chiang Mai. The entrees we prepared tasted good, although I definitely need more work choosing the right balance of the basic spices (salt, sugar, ...) for each dish. I guess I'll show my recipe book to the folks at Wat Buddhanusorn in Fremont for the real test.

3/19/99

My illness returning again, I headed to McCormick hospital in Chiang Mai for additional tests recommended by the doctor in Udon. This time, after three different tests and about 40 minutes of the doctor's time, the toll came to a whopping 505 B ($18.70). The doctor still had no clue but it wasn't malaria and he told me to take the antibiotics my US doctor had perscribed for me for emergencies. The doctor in Thailand was quite surprised to hear that my US doctor gave me Ciproflaxin antibiotic—I guess this one must be really hard to get or "expensive" in Thailand. Anyway, the antibiotic seemed to kill the ailment in a matter of days.

This hospital had been around since 1892 and the building showed it. The actual equipment and procedures seemed modern enough, though. As in many other places in Thailand (restaurants, train stations, ...), there was what Americans would consider an excessively large staff: a good 15-25 nurses plied the main waiting room, idle most of the time. Cheap labor!

That night I went to a grilled chicken place ("Gai Yaang S.P." Even the Thai writing sounds like S.P.). I decided to take some notes about what I saw (still being rather weak, I had to find what sedentary activites I could :). Situated in a large property on the corner of the moat area in Chiang Mai, this restaurant had an open air kitchen with rotisserie chickens spinning over a hot coal oven. Gai Yaang seems to be a particular specialty of north-eastern (and I guess also northern) Thailand and they do a darn good job of it. The kitchen area was right next to the street, making Gai Yaang S.P. at first look like a large street vendor. But some steps behind the kitchen led down to a large, comfortable fan-cooled area with 20 or so tables. Although this resto had English signs, clean dark blue tablecloths, emergency lights, an ABC fire extinguisher, and a somewhat uniformed staff, it wasn't quite a typical "expensive" farang restaurant. And although it had 95% Thai customers and an open wall to the street, it wasn't really a corner-noodle-shop type place either. It occupied an unusual role somewhere in between.

The Thai adults at this restaurant ate their chicken with fork and spoon. Apparently it's ok to raise your fork to your mouth as long as you don't actually stick the fork in your mouth (which is like sticking a knife in your mouth in the US, totally uncouth :). The Thai kids used their hands, a much more efficient way to get the meat off the bone, and the way recommended for all ages at other gai yaang restos I had visited. At the end of the meal, each Thai party inexplicably cleaned off their utensils with a wad of the provided toilet-paper napkins. Did they expect the restaurant not to clean them?

The resto kept the napkin and toothpick dispensers full. Thai people seem to be obsessed with toothpicks. Most of the crowd used them after their meal. Are they a cheaper alternative to flouride toothpaste or something? I once rode with a tuk tuk driver who kept a set of toothpicks stuck in a chunk of that stiff green flower arrangement foam stuff, so that he could have a pick at a second's notice. I wondered how long that particular set of toothpicks had been in service :-|

There were lots of kids at this resto, mostly well behaved. All parents present employed the technique of completely ignoring their kids when they started misbehaving. Some of the kids wore loud hard-soled clogs and went tromping around the restaurant when they needed to burn off stored energy. For parties bigger than two, the waitresses brought out little 3-shelf, 1 foot square cabinets which were used to store drinks and ice for the table. The kids had learned to (continuously) serve themselves from these cabinets, thus freeing the parents and staff from another duty :)

At one point, two 20ish Thai guys slowly and cautiously walked into the place, one following the other with his hand on the other's shoulder as if he were blind. They stopped at each table, expressionless, not saying a word. At first I thought they were waiters but eventually one table paid them and received a bag containing flowers or possibly a small garland. They skipped my table and sauntered out. Later a dazed looking old woman in a patterned shirt dragged her feet through the restaurant with a tray of eelskins or dried squid or something. As with the previous vendors, she hardly used her muscles, stopping without word or expression at each table. She skipped my table. A Thai man asked her a question and bought one of the things. Suddenly the lady started lifting her feet, "mysteriously" no longer dazed, and high tailed it out of the restaurant. After that, a single Thai kid entered carrying yet more garlands. Evidentally he was not with the program because he made no attempt to look injured or pitiable. After making a sale he skipped out as well. This is the first time I had seen vendors wander into a restaurant; I wonder if the restaurant owners wanted them there.

As at the hospital, there were more waitresses than tables. But, also like the hospital, most of the staff is idle most of the time and somehow service still ends up as slow or slower than service at US restaurants. The waitresses constantly turned their head from the kitchen area to look for customer's signals but they just never seemed to successfully see a signal. They all hung out on a set of chairs around this old schooldesk mysteriously placed across from the kitchen at the entrance to the restaurant.

My table was in the far back and I had a view of all the other tables and the kitchen area. I had unlimited opportunity to observe and write because in Thailand they never come and bother you about the check when you are done eating: they always wait for you to ask or come up to the front. Eventually, the waitresses started figuring out that I was writing stuff in my journal, and as happened at countless other restos in Thailand, they walked by one by one staring at my journal for a good few seconds each. A Thai businessman type also cracked a wide smile when he saw me writing. Why were these people so obsessed with seeing the writing? Did they think I was a Lonely Planet reviewer (having a daypack and not having shaved for a month, I certainly looked like one :)? Is it impolite to write in restaurants? Could they read English sentences?

The check arrived for a party of eight. One man at the table waved it down, presumably the one with the highest social standing. There was no gentlemanly argument over the bill as might be seen in the US.

Many tables included grandmas. All the grandmas seemed to have stern, anatomically built-in frowns and showed little or no emotion, except when playing with their baby grandchildren. Some of these grandmas threw me a patented grandma evil eye when they saw I was checking out their table. Apparently gender takes precedence over age in the social pecking order, because the grandmas never paid.

Out back behind this unusually large property there was the bathroom and some street vendor equipment that I assume gets used during the day. I think the owners also lived in the back.

The place had an English and Thai menu. One party had a farang guy and a Thai lady; I wonder which menu they got. Only some of the ceiling fans were on. I noticed that the handful of farang parties (myself included) headed right for the cooled tables, while the Thai parties just sat down, and sometimes even moved away from a table blown by a fan!

While I was eating, a Thai couple arrived who just didn't fit in. These Thais waved their menus in the air for attention, presented condescending looks to the staff, frumpily cleaned the glasses provided by the staff before using them, and signaled for more water by waving the glass around, like a farang. The lady wore a t-shirt with English writing and the guy had a blue dress shirt, definitely not the common case for the area. I wondered if these folks lived in Thailand. The locals would probably say "they must be from Bangkok."

A luvvy duvvy Thai couple across from me put away dish after dish as he slimed her with all sorts of Fonz-style looks. I guess some things are universal.

3/20/99

Went to a wat, Doi Suthep, on a high hill (15 minute taxi ride up switchbacks) overlooking Chiang Mai. The wat was neat, but Chiang Mai was invisible due to pummeling haze and smog. Tons of contributions went into restoring this wat (some placards indicated contributions from cities in Canada!), and it was as magnificent as some corners of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The high perch was lined with bells everywhere and the farang and Thai tourists were constantly ringing them. Must annoy the monks. The national park in the other direction, Doi Inthanon, looked very cool and worth a visit next time around.

Feeling very brave, we stopped at a trailhead on the way down and hiked to a small waterfall. A relaxing trip. We got a ride back with a Thai family; all stinky and wet from hiking and wading, we must have annoyed the kids with whom we crammed into the small vehicle, but as is typical they showed no offense and only generosity.

3/21/99

Feeling better but not quite 100%, I decided to visit the Chiang Mai zoo. Little did I know it is situated on a steep hill and involves much hiking to get from place to place! I saw big gibbons, tiny palm-sized gibbons, monkeys, lemurs (is it a monkey or a dog?), macaques, a trained elephant doing unnatural things, a variety of strange pig-like creatures, giraffes, camels, and tons of Thai families with badly behaved kids.

The zoo had amazing aviaries with tropical birds from around the world. The birds sported color combinations you've never imagined, sort of an acid trip without the inconvienience of needles. Some of the songs were also quite amazing. There was also a huge walk-through aviary which must have been at least half a mile square and hundreds of feet tall. It entirely contained full-size trees on a hillside and it took me minutes to walk from end to end. It must have been an astounding project to build the cage. This is the first birdcage I've ever seen where I could possibly believe that maybe some of the birds don't know they're caged.

At the top of the hill was a very well-laid-out aquarium showing the freshwater fish found in the local rivers. This aquarium had an array of circular fishtank buildings connected by a cool network of concrete paths with artificial streams running under and around the paths. The zoo also had, of all things, penguins. The little creatures existed in a less than humane 10'x30' space with fake ice and painted antarctic scenes on the wall. There was a large freezer unit to cool down the space, but given that you could see the outside through the exhast fans, it cannot have been that cold in there. The thermometer was, suspiciously, broken.

3/22/99

Today was the first symptom-free day since Luang Prabang. I made my guesthouse very happy by signing up for a trek (1500 B ($40.54) for a three day trek was the going rate in town).

I went to a local shopping mall for a hat and some bug stuff. This mall had a large video game arcade upstairs. I noticed that the "Street Fighter II" game had been customized for Thailand so that there was a reclining Buddha behind the two men beating each other to a pulp; I'm sure this pleased the clergy to no end. A little vendor stand in the mall sold "sweet corn," which consists of a plastic glass of steamed corn, sugar, butter, and salt. It tasted good, but I'm not sure if I needed the corn :) Another vendor sold a fruit smoothie that included almond and other strange ingredients. Next to the traditional arcade they had something cool which I've not seen in the US (but which must exist somewhere): there was a row of 20 or so TV sets with home Nintendo consoles and a pile of cartridges. The vendors rented out the units by the hour. Home video game consoles are now getting good enough that they can compete with arcade units; I guess we're seeing the end of an era for those video game units.

The mall I was at unfortunately had Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, and KFC. There was a tacky, and I swear slightly asian, statue of Col. Sanders at the top of the escalator. I noticed that nearly all farangs climbing the escalator gave the statue a good frown or sighed as they passed it.

I saw lots of high-school aged kids at the mall at 1:30. Shouldn't they be in school?

Later that day I went for a traditional Thai massage. This place was "Thai massage by the blind," and it had a very good reputation in town. Unhindered by trivialities like sight, the masseuses find their way around your body by feel. They probably know the body better than any sighted person! Traditional Thai massage is kind of odd in that there is not a lot of rhythmic squeezing. Instead, the masseuse finds the right place on your body and then applies a sustained, continuous pressure there for a while. They also bend and stretch your joints around in weird ways. Right before doing the classic neck crack my guy asked the all-important question "kkk kkk ... ok?" He had this most amazing technique whereby he could roll your head around harmlessly until you least expect it, and then quickly and efficiently crack your neck bones like he was rolling some dice. You can elect to skip that part if you want. If you go for a Thai massage you must make sure to locate the traditional kind, otherwise you will get much more bodily contact than you bargained for.

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