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Tuesday, 01 May 2007

Can you Spare a Square?

Written by Sherry Ott
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Have you seen the Sienfeld episode, “Can you Spare a Square”? In Sienfeld they were talking about toilet paper - however in Thailand - I’m referring to a napkin. Thailand has this weird mix: the spiciest food, and the smallest napkins. This may not seem like an issue, however, when your sinuses are running like a faucet due to the spicy food; you need more than a tiny napkin. A little stack of paper napkins sits on each dinner table, but when you grab one to try to plug up your gushing sinuses, you realize that they were no bigger than a square of toilet paper AND they were one ply! I couldn’t understand this…were they so budget-conscious that they didn’t want people wasting them? Did Thai people have some way of eating without needing to use a napkin? It baffled me for weeks. I would order my food spicy and leave a little mountain of crumpled up napkins at my table. It was kind of embarrassing, actually.


Regardless of the deficient napkin size, I got braver and braver with the spiciness factor when ordering. There was something very addictive about the spices there. I normally don’t love hot food, but in Thailand I found myself craving it. There are two types of food in Thailand: food made for Caucasian tourists, and then there’s Thai food. The tourist versions have the same names as the Thai food, but they’re missing one thing - the true Thai


Sure - you can order curry and it will even say on the menu that it’s spicy (normally denoted by a star or chili pepper), and it will even taste rather spicy to our bland palettes. You will be completely satisfied thinking that you are eating real Thai food, but you aren’t. They’ve really left out about 80% of the chilies that they put in curry for Thai people. I’m talking about the kind of spice that clears your sinuses in mere seconds. It leaves your lips and tongue numb and it leaves your wimpy stomach in a knotty, nauseous mess a few hours after eating. This is real Thai food. At restaurants they call this Thai Spicy, if you want this intoxicating authentic experience - you order your curry ‘Thai spicy’ and know that you are getting authentic Thai food. However, I strongly suggest that you bring your own napkins.

food I was fortunate; I was introduced to the concept of Thai Spicy on my Hill Tribe Trek with my guide “Hay.” He was so excited to cook for me because I was willing to try anything – even the rat that that villagers caught and ate. Yes, it tasted like chicken. After the Hill Tribe Trek - I was no longer satisfied with eating at tourist places - I was on a quest - a quest for the real Thai food. However - there were a few problems with this quest - it meant that I needed to bring my own napkins, and I needed a stomach of Teflon.



drinksI knew the authentic food could be found at the night markets where the vendors cooked food on the streets, but all ‘western’ tour guides tend to steer you away from these places. They serve raw vegetables, they wash the veggies in their local water, and they have questionable health standards. I felt that over my last 4 months of travel, my stomach was slowly being trained to fight off evil bacteria that US standards would frown upon. At least I told myself this, knowing that what I was really doing was playing Russian roulette with my intestines. However, my feeling is that if you want to experience a different culture, then you have to eat the food.


With this new food mission, I left Chiang Mai and headed towards Pai on the local bus. Like most local bus routes, it was a test in patience and a test of your motion sickness gauge. Utopia is what many people called this town, which was pretty accurate. It had a beatnik feel and was full of coffee shops, little galleries, live music, bars, Thai tourists, and a night market (bring on the real food!). It was Thailand’s version of the East Village in NYC. I loved the fact that there were so many tourists here - mainly because they were Thai young people. There were very few Caucasians and everyone’s English was a bit choppy which finally forced me to learn ‘hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in Thai, the staples of any language! There were so many things I liked about this town - one was the prices. A typical menu of prices in Pai (US $):noodles

Room with hot shower - $10

Bottle of water - $.30
Beer $1
1 hour massage $5
Load of laundry - $1
Dinner and drinks for two - $7

cookI never wanted to leave Pai. Every night I would go out and try new food - sometimes in restaurants, but more often than not, on the streets. I was moving one step closer to a Teflon stomach. I was still a bit timid - but for the times when I wasn’t feeling adventurous, there was always pad Thai. I would take my little one-ply napkins and wander down the street looking for new food to sample, blowing my nose like a wimpy foreigner.

cook I headed to Mae Hong Son next - a little town close to the border of Burma. Honestly, the main reason why I went there was because I had booked a plane ticket out of there to get to Bangkok. I got a little room at Friend House that literally had a mattress on the floor and a window, but it was only one night and it was clean and only 150 Baht ($5 US). The fact that I was excited to sleep on a mattress on the floor with an outdoor toilet for $5 is a bit disturbing to me. I think I’m turning into my parents. However, there is something intoxicating about getting a good deal, and this sure was it.


I went looking around the town and a couple of young girls came up to me giggling - and asked in their best broken English if they could interview me for a school assignment. I had to answer all kinds of questions about where I was from, what my nickname was, why I came to Mae Hong Son, what my favorite Thai food was, and then they had to take a picture of me. So it’s fun to think that in some classroom in Mae Hong Son kids are discussing Sherry Ott from New York City who loves papaya salad!


marketI then stumbled across the Mae Hong Son night market…an eating extravaganza!!! This market was set by the lake in the center of town, and it was truly amazing. I just walked by stand after stand in awe of this yummy looking food. Most of the time I was wondering what the various meats on a stick were, and trying to remember what stalls I wanted to come back to. Short tables were set up on the grass along the lake that you could sit and eat at. I found someone that spoke some English and asked them about some of the food, but mainly I just tried what looked good to me and had the spiciest papaya salad yet! I had been eying the meatball skewers back in Pai - and I finally decided to try them here. I asked for the chicken ones - yet I really have no idea if he understood me - so who knows what I ate. He asked me if I wanted sauce, “Sure, I’ll take the sauce.” Of course the sauce was Thai spicy…next I needed a beer and a mound of napkins. It was probably the best food I had at a night market - what a wonderful night - and I used about 100 single-ply napkins.


templeThe next morning I got up and visited a local temple on the hill. It was a foggy morning which made for great photography of the white temple.


My next major stop on my food tour was Kanchanaburi which was in central/west Thailand. It is most famous for the Bridge over the River Kwai. I had never seen the movie, but was eager to learn more about it. I arrived in Kanchanburi by bus - another long ride, but with AC (and plenty of bugs). I walked around the town and found some spicy dinner, then found a great bar that was showing outdoor movies on a big screen! I watched Narnia under the stars that night! When I asked the bartender where the popcorn was – he just looked at me and said “You are sooo American.” I had to go across the street to the Seven Eleven and get some M&M’s to complete my movie experience.



The next day me and a friend, Emily, rented little bikes with big baskets on the front- I felt as if I were 7 years old again! We biked all over Kanchanaburi to see the World War II Cemetery, the Railway museum and the famous bridge itself. I’m certainly no history expert, in fact, I’m probably below normal when it comes to my knowledge of WWII, but I was captivated by this little town and the history there. The bridge was just one part of a much larger story about the railway that was built between Thailand and Burma by WWII POW’s. It was fascinating and sobering. The museum there was top notch - very educational, and not to be missed. I was moved by what I learned and had a big knot in my stomach after seeing the pictures and visiting the cemetery.


foodCycling back from the bridge, though, I was ready for lunch. I let Emily pick the spot, as she was a very adventurous eater and had been eying many places as we biked to the bridge. She chose one of the road side ‘restaurants’ that simply had pots of food out front and a few seats inside away from the sun. I can safely say that we were the only tourists that stopped there that whole week. The ladies warned us a few times about the fact that it was spicy - but we barged ahead. We left our customary stack of napkins, and lost the feeling in our lips.


Later that afternoon we embarked on an adventure that was highly recommended by one of Emily’s friends. We went to see and pet live tigers at a temple run by monks. We took off in a little truck taxi with about 8 other people. Being crammed in the back of a truck for 40 minutes wasn’t the best, but to pet live tigers I could put up with anything.


We bought our tickets and on the back of the ticket there was a disclaimer that we had to sign. “You are going to be seeing live tigers which is inherently dangerous. We take no responsibility for your safety” type of thing. I’m sure that this may not seem strange to you since in the west we would expect to sign a waiver of sorts when doing something dangerous. The weird thing about this was that in my 4 months of traveling and participating in dangerous activities, this was the first place that actually had a waiver. It kind of freaked me out, I actually had to stop and think for a second…damn…this could be dangerous. For a brief second thoughts of Siegfried and Roy came to mind. Tigers do attack, however, you only live once.


tigerThere were about 10 big tigers in a canyon manned by monks and volunteers of sorts. I didn’t really understand why the monks had these tigers, but I was certainly excited to pet them. We got in line and realized that this tiger petting was a fine oiled, deadly machine. They made you take off any sunglasses, purses, or hats that you were wearing and also made you cover up any red color that you were wearing – these tigers were finicky. You would get two volunteers assigned to you, one that took your camera from you to take pictures, and one that took your hand, held it and led you around to the tigers. They would not say anything to you, just hold your hand - it was all very creepy. They would sit you down behind a tiger and put your hand on the tiger’s back, soon the paparazzi would start to take a bunch of photos of you and the tiger. The guide would take your hand again and lead you to another tiger….more paparazzi, and this continues for about 4 tigers before they took you back to the line and gave you your camera back. You never exchanged any words with the person - it was really strange but, I got my pictures!



bugsThat night I went to the night market and dragged Emily along again for some papaya salad, meatballs, and any new delights that we could find. There we came across something that we had never seen at any night market before…insects. I’m not talking about the ones flying around, I’m talking about ones to eat. As I peered into a pile of fried grasshoppers, locusts, and worms - I realized - I had met my limit. I couldn’t eat the bugs. There would never be enough napkins in this market for me if I ate a bug.


emilyHowever, Emily did not disappoint. She kept staring at them, going by the stand over and over, and hovering by it. I finally just said…”Go ahead - you know you want to try them…just do it”. We gave the lady 1 Baht and she gave Emily a Locust looking bug - about 3 inches long. I readied the camera and she bit…chewed for a bit - and said that it was ok. However - she wasn’t ready to get a bag for dinner. We got our other food, sat on a curb and ate our spicy food with our little napkin - proud of ourselves for being the only Caucasians at the market. We ended the night with wine, ice cream, cookie crisp cereal and a outdoor movie at the bar. What a great town!


sausagesMy whirlwind eating tour was coming to an end. I was so proud of myself for trying everything (minus the big bugs…come on, give me a break), eating all of the places the guidebooks tell you not to eat, and loving every minute of it. I hope to educate everyone on the fact that sometimes you need to ignore the guidebook’s advice and just do what feels right. Try new things - if you are in Thailand try the papaya salad Thai spicy.


But most importantly, I finally learned why you only get a little single-ply napkin in Thailand. Thai people feel that it’s distasteful to wipe your face with a napkin and then put it back in your lap to use again. In essence you are re-using a dirty napkin that way. They believe that napkins are for one time use, and you can use how ever many you want. So don’t be afraid to sit at your table in Thailand piling up a stack of napkins the size of Mt. Everest…its customary! Happy Eating!


Me and my tiny napkin

©Sherry Ott

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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