yam kai dao recipe

A Little Recipe … Making Yum Kai Dao, a Thai Favorite

The sum of my past travel experiences infuse every aspect of my life, like the echoes of memories I have written about in the past, my food journey is ingrained in me now as well. Much of my traveling centered on Asia over the years, and my taste-buds craved the fusion of flavors, sour lime mixed with a sweet sauce and the kick of spicy chili gently burning over your palate—Thailand. Or the toasted bread, tart yogurt and aromatic curries—India. The Indian food I sampled over the years still calls to me and is one of the single strongest reasons returning to India is on my shortlist for future travels.

But I find myself in Mexico now, and this was quite by design. After years of spicy flavors and pungent scents permeating my days in Southeast Asia, I wanted the fresh vegetables, tortillas, and tastes of Mexico. And it is this love the range of flavors that has me now choosing my taco stands based on the range of salsas offered on their toppings table—if I can artfully combine a mild but chunky pico with the thin, red, and incredibly hot salsa, top it off with diced onions and frijoles, well then life is good here in Mexico.

But as is always the case, those echoes pull to the surface cravings of the flavors of Asia, and when my friends here in San Pancho hosted a Thai food potluck night I dutifully took to my kitchen (I am endlessly happy to have a full kitchen, something my apartments in Southeast Asia never came with!) to make one of my favorite Thai dishes, yum kai dao, a spicy fried egg salad.

Yum kai dao, a Thai fried egg salad
One of my favorite Thai dishes, yum kai dao, which is a fried egg salad traditionally served very spicy!

The dish is tasty, pretty (hey, presentation matters), and easy to prepare and once I successfully pulled it off, I thought it behooved me to share it. I am not a good cook (I get regular flashbacks to my cooking failure that was moutabel, an eggplant dish I loved in my Jordan travels), so if I can make this dish I give you a firm promise you can too. Now, no promises on the state of your kitchen afterwards (I had oil splatters on every surface—floor, stove, sink, coffee pot) but it was hit, everyone at the potluck was in love, so I share in the hopes that you too can enjoy a little Thai flavor in your life.

I chose this dish because it contains each of the key areas of the palate Thai foods are supposed to hit on—sweet, salty, spicy, and sour—and it’s simple to prepare. I have to keep stressing that because a complicated curry is beyond me, but this is perfect. The four areas of taste in Thai food really intrigues me a lot, and I made a study of them while I lived there because the food-travelers surrounding me often talked about the history and development of these foods within the context of Thai culture. The complex blending of flavors in many Thai dishes is not arbitrary, and I think that’s why those of us who like finding ethnic restaurants seek them out—other cultures have cultivated their taste-buds differently, and so sampling their dishes is truly like travel itself. It’s immersive. You can’t escape the range of flavors and they speak to a country’s history as much as the temples and language. Though I love Mexico, I welcomed a chance to travel back to Thailand for the evening. And so …

An Easy Recipe for Vegetarian Yum Kai Dao

I am no master chef here, but I adapted a few recipes I found on the internets, substituted to make it vegetarian, and then made a bit up as I cooked to make it similar to what I ate while I lived in Thailand!

Main Ingredients:
4 large eggs
1 red or white onion (sliced super thin)
2-3 tomatoes (wedged, see photo)
coriander/parsley (a small bunch, chopped up)
oil for deep frying
optional: rice if you’re serving as a meal

Ingredients for Dressing:
3 tbsp soy sauce (calls for fish sauce but then it’s not vegetarian, so I substitute)
4 tbsp lime juice (squeeze it fresh!)
4 tbsp sugar (I successfully used a bit less, but sweet is a cornerstone of Thai food, so don’t skip it entirely!)
1 small garlic clove (crushed finely—this is not in the traditional recipe but helps enhance since no fish sauce)
chili to taste (calls for fresh but I used dried and it was tasty)

making yum kai dao

Preparation:
Add all the dressing ingredients together into one bowl, I added a lot of chili to the mix and let it sit and soak in the dressing while I chopped and cooked the rest of the ingredients and then took out half the chili’s so I didn’t blow the socks off of the potluck guests. Add chili to your taste—sadly, the first time Ana ate this dish in Thailand it came out as it is traditionally preparation, incredibly hot, and she would never go near it again. So when you’re cooking, spice it up to your own tastes, but know that it’s supposed to be a very spicy dish. And for the soy sauce, there are better workarounds for this if you have access to them (some Asian stores sell a tamarind paste mixture to sub for fish sauce), but my improvised version worked well enough for me.

Slice and dice your tomatoes, onions, and greens while your dressing is sitting (and soaking if you too added chilies).

Deep fry the eggs in very hot oil. You must have enough oil in the pan (an inch at least) to submerge the entire egg. Cook until the eggs are crispy on the edges, fluffy, and the yolk is fully cooked (a great tip I read online that worked is to constantly spoon the hot oil over the top of the egg so it cooks quickly and evenly on both sides). Let the eggs cool a bit and then cut them into large chunks (I also used paper towels to wipe off the oil, but the recipe definitely doesn’t call for that).

Toss everything together and serve. When I ordered this in Thai restaurants, it is served with a bowl of white rice, which I always desperately needed to cut the spice, but I have seen it served sans rice too.

***

And that’s it!

I brought this dish (I doubled the recipe) to a potluck last week here in Mexico and my friends gave me rave reviews (and not just flattery because they cleaned the bowl down to the last wedged tomato).

Have you tried this dish before or will you give it a go?! If you’re keen to try it, I promise that if I can manage to pull it off, you can too  :)

monks in mandalay u bein bridge

A Little Nostalgia… A Reason to Love Southeast Asia

In recent posts, I’ve talked about how I’m a bit lost right now in terms of knowing precisely the direction life is taking. Each time I sit to write, that single truth stands out above the rest. I’m in a transition, and those feelings and thoughts manifest in my writing; when I try to ignore them, I feel uninspired.

Instead, I’ve embraced this nostalgia, shining a light on my travels these past years through the only perspective I have: my own. I find myself mulling over what precisely Southeast Asia holds that motivated me to circle back to that region many times over, both literally and figuratively in the past four years.

Roti

Celebrations are underway as a passing tuk-tuk is pummeled with water! Songkran in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Buddha with strings at a wat on the outskirts of Chiang Rai, Thailand

When I’m in North America, I catch myself in an everyday circumstance—a coffee at Starbucks or dinner with friends—with my thoughts flying tens of thousands of miles across the world on a brief mental trip to Asia. I flit away on side-trips for several seconds before jolting to the present. And with the nature of my ongoing travels, those thoughts eventually propel me back to Asia; I have spent weeks of my life in transit waiting for the giddy relief of stepping out of the airport and breathing in the scent of warm, sticky air tinted with deep-fried food, car exhaust, and possibilities.

I visited Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia on my first year traveling around the world, and I was captivated to the cadence of life. But friends, plans, and a trip itinerary that first year pushed me into motion and I left Southeast Asia for India after just two months backpacking the region.

In subsequent years, I lived Chiang Mai for a time, and I fell in love with the city so much that when I decided to travel with my niece in 2011, my thoughts immediately circled around the community and welcome I feel when I land in Southeast Asia.

Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Golden flourishes at Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Each time I returned, the culture gave me something I needed, something I craved in my soul, if that makes any sense. There’s a simplicity to traveling in Southeast Asia—it’s easy in terms of a tourism infrastructure, communication, and other traveling friends. Over the years, the region fostered an environment that allowed me to sink into the experience as I couldn’t do in some other countries and cultures. And as I spent more time in Southeast Asia—visiting Myanmar, Malaysia, and Bali, too—I found increasingly more things to love its understated charm.

Warm smiles.

Open conversation.

A helping hand and shared snacks on endless bus rides.

All these things are mere pieces of a whole that is hard to describe, and no single aspect pulled me back to Asia.

A wai from a monk statue in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Details at a temple during one of my many wanders through the Wats in Chiang Mai.

My stories about Southeast Asia are some of the most popular on my site, and I have so much I still haven’t shared over the years: tidbits of my observations, anecdotes of funny/touching/meaningful moments, and even pervasive cultural norms that I deeply love.

And so, to the extent that I have never really talked about the region in the broad sense—the dominant Buddhist religion, the modern and ancient temples, and how food integrates into life in a way foreign to my culture back home—I began to think about the bigger picture that drives me back to Southeast Asia countless times.

Religion is one of those taboo topics for me on this site, and in my personal life if I am honest. The topic is too polarizing to discuss outside of trusted friends, so instead of pinpointing specifics, I’ll note that a motivation when I left to travel back in 2008 was to come to terms with my brother’s death, and the quandary of faith I had in the years since that happened.  I went through a tough time figuring out where I sat in my soul with religion after he died, and my personality quirks necessitated that I find more possible answers to the big questions in life. How to other cultures handle death and the afterlife?

monks at Maha Gandayon Monastery in Mandalay
Monks line up for lunch at a monastery in Mandalay, Myanmar.

Definite answers will never come, but I found new knowledge and belief systems that shifted my perspectives. Although the entire journey changed me, it’s my time in Southeast Asia—meditating and learning more about Buddhism—that opened my mind, allowing me to find peace within myself, and within the world’s disparate religions. There is a peacefulness inside holy places of every faith that I’ve come to love.

The churches of Europe.

The temples of Asia.

The mosques of the Middle East.

These places contain the energy of every person who has ever visited.

The energy in Asia healed me a place in me I didn’t think it was possible to repair.

We often have blinders on to the commonplace, to our familiar surroundings. It’s not that I couldn’t have found my way to peace back home, but more that I didn’t even know where to begin looking.

In Asia, although locals may be accustomed to temples, this wasn’t the case for me. I loved sunrise walks through the cities and towns as the initial rays of light glinted from the gilded tips of temples, washing over flame-tongued dragons flanking the entrances, and illuminating monks tidying temple grounds.

Decorative entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Dragon details guarding the entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Wat Phra Singh in at night Chiang Mai, Thailand
My favorite temple in Chiang Mai, a small one that I would pass each night on my way home.

The temples, called wats, in Chiang Mai are beautiful, and the old city has temples on every corner. In fact, temples were so pervasive that I taught Ana the layout of the city by the location of nearby wats—they are among the easiest ways to orient yourself in the city, to look at the map and find the closest wat!

And on the topic of Ana, I believe Southeast Asia was a beautiful first introduction to the world for her. I chose our destination with forethought because I knew this was my chance to open her mind at an influential time in her life.

While I surely could have done this in South America or Europe, Asia provided stark contrasts in nearly every way.

I wanted to jolt my niece out of complacency and force her to think about the givens in life that, at 11-years-old, she thought were universal to all people and cultures. The religious differences, and how that manifests in every aspect of life, was a very tangible experience for Ana—and for me in the early days of traveling too. But other aspects leap out as influential as well.

food temple thailand
Street food vendors at a local festival dish out piping hot, fresh eats.

Before we traveled, Ana took a page out of my book on the food front—we have to eat each day and that’s about as far as the conversation goes. The food culture of a place didn’t much matter to me when I first left to travel either, but it was the river of flavors (to use a phrase from my friend Naomi Duguid) that opened my eyes to the subtle joys of trying and experiencing new foods. I will never be the most adventurous eater because I’m vegetarian, but in Southeast Asia, for the first time in my life I found myself excited at the adventure of wandering fresh markets, peering over open flames, and following scents to unexpected new flavors and dishes each day.

chapati stand mandalay

Food connects us if we allow it to, and meals are often a shared experience in Asia in a way that is completely foreign to us in North America. You sit, knees at your chin and crouched on small plastic chairs, with steaming, fresh plates of food. The hustle of motorbikes, families, and children all pulse nearby, and no person is off-limits for a conversation.

In this part of the world, more of life takes place on the streets than back home. I love this connection to others merely by spending time outside as a part of your daily eating experience. I wanted Ana to see for herself that things we take as truths—you maintain a bubble around you when in public in the U.S. and you do your best never to bump into the bubble those nearby—are not universal truths.

As I have noted, it’s hard to pin down exact reasons I love Asia, they shift and morph each time I revisit the country.

A year and half ago, I knew I needed more time in the region, I needed to take Ana and show her what I loved, to share the things I had learned and learn more alongside her. I was drawn back to Southeast Asia over the years, and I learned and grew as a person. Much of the perspective shifts I talked about in my recent post, How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me, occurred from my time in Asia. Traveling there healed a place in my soul.

And yet, now it’s time to move on.

It occurred to me recently when talking to a travel friend that I am done, for now. I don’t know why I’m done, but the draw is gone. I have pangs of nostalgia for the insane honking of tuk-tuks while smells of nearby street-food pervade the air, but not so much so that I want to return, not at this juncture in my life.

Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset.
Monks cross U Bein Bridge at sunset near Mandalay, Myanmar.

For now, I head to Mexico, as I mentioned last month, and I hope for a new set of adventures in 2013 that continue the travel journey. I leave for Mexico in a few weeks, but yet I’m still processing thousands of photographs from my travels over the past two years. My memories of the temples, and the sounds and sights of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam that I will miss in the coming year inspired me to write today’s post, but I am eager to find new experiences and new opportunities for growth.  :)

Is there a place on your travels that you return to often, or where that calls to you in some way?

akha ama coffee

A Little Story… A Journey to Find What Sustainable Coffee Really Means

There is a textbook definition of the word “journey”: an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. Within the framework of our collective consciousness as people, however,  the true meaning of a journey lies within ourselves. The word can imply the growth of very specific ideas and understanding within a set time frame; or perhaps a long and hard-earned internal challenge, met through overcoming emotional obstacles and hurdles. There is always a change on a journey. More than the simple act of moving from one place to another, the journey morphs the journeyer throughout that move into a different place—either mental or physical, and occasionally both.

Mountains around Chiang Rai, Thailand
Panoramic views from the back of the bumpy pickup truck as we headed to Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Two years ago I met Lee, a coffee shop owner living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but originally from a small hill-tribe village about four hours away. Lee is on a long journey, but it’s not a voyage of distance. He runs Akha Ama Coffee, a fair trade coffee shop. It wasn’t until I met Lee, and went on a Coffee Journey with him that I came to a deeper understanding of  what it means when something is sustainably produced with a mind toward fair prices paid to the people producing the coffee, ie., fair trade.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world.

Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy today, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people tend to feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world. That’s the assumption, right? I use these words in my blogging and with regards to my volunteering, and have heretofore felt confident in my apt usage and understanding of the concepts.  During my travels I looked for ways to support social enterprises, or rather for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission: businesses like Lee’s. On the trade winds of my physical journey, I gained a deeper, more profound understanding of what these catchphrases mean—both literally and to the people affected by the “fair” part of “fair trade.”

Through my friendship with Lee over the past two years, I began to look more closely at how Westerners perceive the impact of our actions when we consume something innocuously labeled as sustainable and fair trade. What does that mean? As a writer who has ever emphasized the need for each traveler to begin understanding how intrinsically linked we are on this planet, I found myself humbled by where I myself was apparently situated on that continuum.

coffee
From organically grown coffee plants to a hand-brewed cup of coffee, Akha Ama Coffee takes the beans on a sustainable journey the entire way. That’s the Akha Ama logo replicated in latte art!

In 2011, I first came to Chiang Mai, Thailand and took up residence as a nomadic expat—I lived there, but for just five months. I landed in Chiang Mai knowing other travelers and expats living in the city, but I was acquainted with few locals. After finding a place to live and dispensing with other practical matters, my first order of business in any new place is tracking down a decent coffee shop—not only because locating caffeine and fast wi-fi are integral parts of me feathering my nest, but because I’ve found with experience that this is the best way to meet new people.

This is how I initially found myself at Lee’s Akha Ama coffee shop. His name is known in the local expat community, and with good reason: he is young, charming, and the kind of character who seems to attract a bevy of fast friends. To no surprise, I bonded quickly with Lee. Getting to know him better, and experiencing that gradual break with sonder that tends to happen in new acquaintanceship, however, was how I discovered that Lee’s story—the unspoken history underpinning his actions—is what really makes his personal journey stand out.

Lee is the face of Akha Ama Coffee, and organizes a biannual trip that takes a dozen people to his family’s remote village, where the coffee Lee sells and markets at his shop is grown. Lee calls these trips a “coffee journey.” That’s not hubris, either—the technical basics of making coffee are rather simple and can be covered with a quick overview (such as the two-hour trip through the Finca Filidefia plantation in Guatemala I took a few years ago). Lee’s trip, on the other hand, is a three-day journey toward understanding just what goes into a cup of sustainably grown coffee. It’s about the journey his village is taking toward operating as a sustainable, fair trade farming cooperative, and the human story and struggles behind each cup of coffee.

Lee Akha Ama
Lee explained how the high-quality Arabica coffee beans are grown, and how crop rotation promotes higher crop yields without the use of pesticides.

I took my first Coffee Journey with Lee during those initial five months I lived in Chiang Mai. Having cherished the experience and come to call Lee a friend, I returned with my niece Ana in tow to again make the journey over New Year’s weekend as we welcomed 2012. Ana knew Lee only as the nice guy from the coffee shop at that point. I shared with her his powerful story, and by the time we departed, she knew that Lee not only sold coffee, but was the front-end funnel for a community coffee production collective.

The Akha Ama Coffee Collective represents 14 families from the Maejantai village area that have joined together under one brand to increase their ability to control, market, and command fair prices for the coffee they grow. They formed the collective so each family could bring in more money and thus assure themselves fair wages with which to obtain education for their children and modern conveniences.

akha coffee beans
Lee’s mother spread the recently husked, wet coffee beans in the sunlight so the beans were thoroughly dry before villagers bagged them and trucked the beans to Chiang Mai for roasting.

The coffee journey to Maejantai village is not a cushy, high-end tour, nor is it intended to be. Participants sleep in homes graciously offered by one of the 14 families,  and they eat family-style meals replete with hand-picked greens grown on the surrounding farms. For Ana, I knew this trip would be unlike anything else she’s experienced. Going into it, I hoped her existing friendship with Lee would give her a unique window through which she could view and understand the paths and choices people make to change their lives when they are given far different circumstances than the ones Ana experienced in her suburban American life.

Our journey began in Chiang Mai, early on a Friday morning during coffee harvesting season. Participants arrived at the coffee shop with enough gear for a weekend, and piled into the back of the yellow songthaews (covered pickup trucks). With our thighs squished tight and shoulders wedged against one another, sheer proximity made a surprisingly effective safety harness against the bumpy ride outside of town and eventually into the mountains surrounding Chiang Rai. Hours later, with just a quarter-mile of jolting progress up the mountain remaining, children from Lee’s village began chasing after our truck. Seeing Ana’s young(er) face among the coffee journey participants excited and fascinated the kids, and their huge smiles and waves were our first welcome to Maejantai.

Shaking the pervasive red dust from my hair, face, teeth and eyes, I trooped upstairs with Ana to introduce Lee’s mother, the business’s namesake. (Lee belongs to the Akha people. In the Akha language, “ama” means mother.) Lee’s mother reserved a special hug for me, one of the few participants making a repeat journey. It touched me that she remembered my face from last year.

Woman returning from a day at work, Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sweet faces of children in the Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Lee’s Back Story

Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture.

As his mother welcomed us and prepared tea for the group, Lee launched into his back story: the tale of  how Akha Ama came into existence. The Akha people, who share a common language, have nonetheless been scattered throughout Thailand, China, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar) over the past several hundred years as the result of civil wars and demarcation disagreements. These hill-tribe groups have largely been separated from rapid Westernization, owing to both the isolation of the regions in which they’ve settled and the fact that they generally don’t speak the main language of the countries in which they live.

When Lee grew up, his mother urged him to leave his village and gain a formal education in nearby Chiang Rai. He became the first and, to date, only villager to obtain higher education. Lee studied Thai and learned English from passing tourists. Gradually, as he discovered the value in community-sourced projects, he began plotting a way to help the Akha farmers and villages in his region. Lee’s mother supported his idea and was the catalyst in bringing together the 14 families that today make up the Akha Ama collective.

There is always strength in numbers, but the collective succeeds also because the 14 families are working together toward sustainable agriculture that not only produces an organic crop, but avoids the use of expensive, harmful pesticides as well. New methods of crop rotation are the key to sustaining these eco-friendly products in the long-term, and the collective has implemented processes that will take years to fully bear out. This is the foundation on which the families formed Akha Ama, and out of necessity, it is a gross simplification of Lee’s story.

Before the farmers in Maejantai village formed the collective, they had only one means of making money—sell their coffee beans at the going rate to whomever was buying. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture, however, and at that point Lee and his family saw an opportunity to see the beans completely through the process. Consequently, farmers could see more monetary returns on their time and effort. Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap.

Lee’s village may be remote, but the influence of Western culture and advancement has taken root even in Maejantai. Villagers must pay for their children to attend a nearby school, and the demand for conveniences like cell phones have necessitated a move toward a more monetary-based system in the villages. Akha Ama’s goals are both social and economic: to not only grant villagers control over what they produce, but to funnel the money back into the community as well.

akha ama coffee
Lee’s sister displayed traditional Akha clothing in the coffee fields nearby.
The small Akha Ama coffee village in the mountains near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
A beautiful sunset over Maejantai village high in the mountains north of Chiang Rai, Thailand.

The Coffee Process

The fields are about a 45 minute walk from the village at a slow pace. On the last turn, the path opens up to this beautiful valley filled with coffee and tea plants.

Understanding the political side of Akha Ama is just one part of the Coffee Journey. Hands-on participation in the labor-intensive process of making coffee is just as much a component of the experience, and was no small part of why I wanted to bring Ana along. Throughout the three days, Lee took us through each stage of the coffee process—from picking the beans out in the fields all day, to drying, husking, processing, bagging, storing, and transporting them. Once Lee is back in Chiang Mai, he roasts the beans, packages them, and sells them through Akha Ama and a handful of other coffee shops in Thailand.

On the second day of our Coffee Journey, Ana and I walked for 45 minutes to Lee’s family’s coffee fields, where he explained how the plants are grown and harvested. Then he handed us each baskets and instructed us on how to properly twist and pluck the ripe coffee cherries. Ana enthusiastically joined in the picking, and by lunchtime our baskets were filled with shining red and yellow cherries.

At lunchtime, we ate a plentiful lunch on huge banana leaves. Right after, we headed back into fields for round two. It’s hard to say at which point, for Ana, that the fun of plucking and twisting gave way to an understanding and appreciation of the work that it really is. As our baskets filled, Lee and other villagers eagerly replaced them and encouraged us to continue picking. After several hours, my hands and arms cramped with the small, repetitive tasks. Ana continued to work respectfully, but it was clear that the “game” aspect of this all was gone.

Ripe red and yellow coffee cherries.  Serving up rice for the coffee journey participants. A family-style lunch with delicious vegetables and rice.

Ana listens closely as only a child can as Lee explains our task. Maejantai village, Thailand.  Picking coffee ripe coffee cherries.  How cute is she?! Ana is pretty proud of her basket of bright red coffee cherries from the Akha Ama coffee fields.

Mind you, none of this was exactly miserable—far from it, since the weather was a perfect mix of cool breeze and warm sunshine. The reality of the task, however, of picking all day for your survival and livelihood, had sunk in for our rag-tag group of 20 or so participants. While we worked, Lee’s family gathered vegetables and prepared dinner for our group. Feeding twenty ravenous people is no small task, either!

And as it happened, on this second Coffee Journey, at the end of our long day in the fields, Ana and I joined the group around a large bonfire under a sky filled with more stars than Ana had ever seen in her life and welcomed in the New Year with new friends, new realizations, and perspective shifts on what it takes to live and enjoy life.

The realities of processing coffee continued unabated the next day as we watched Lee’s sister sort through the coffee berries, discarding the under-ripe berries we unknowingly plucked. A machine then separated the beans from the husks, after which the families took these wet coffee beans to huge tarp-covered pallets so to dry out in the cool mountain air.

Dry beans are then bagged and stored until they are ready for the journey to Chiang Mai, where Lee roasts the beans, bags them, and either sells them or grinds them for coffee.

Lee's sister sorts the coffee cherries.  The machine used to remove the soft outer layer from the coffee beans.  Lee processing coffee cherries.

coffee beans drying

The Realities of Sustainable Crops

At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process — the community growing your coffee, chocolate, cotton — have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay.

Lee’s village is beautiful. The people and smiles were open and welcoming from the moment our feet hit the compact, dusty red earth. Our welcome was genuine and each villager we met was willing to open up to a group of strangers in the hopes that we would take away an understanding of all that lies behind the Akha Ama brand.

There are people behind that logo. A community of children, mothers, and fathers exist behind each package of coffee Lee sells in his shop. The money from each sale is a tangible investment in a remote community living on a faraway hill-side. Ana watched the young children in Maejantai play games around her, using their imaginations to fuel epic staged battles between good and evil that echoed the games her little brother regularly plays back home. I didn’t have to point out the similarities. Anyone can see that they exist—our common humanity is as clear as day.

Our Coffee Journey lasted three days; Lee’s coffee journey is ongoing.  As the face and front-end of Akha Ama, Lee is actively working to promote the brand as a sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee brand. Only through talking with Lee and then visiting his village’s collective did I realize the lengthy and expensive process that goes into legally using many of these buzzwords. When he conceived of Akha Ama, Lee embarked on a process that could secure the future of his village for generations. Beyond farming, there are few viable economic opportunities for such a remote community. In recent years, the lure of modernization has taken much of the youth out of the village and into the big cities. But with money, an operation, and something to back and believe in, Akha Ama is changing opportunities for each family of the Maejantai collective.

Over the years, news stories have indicted the idea of fair trade as flawed and unable to substantiate on a large-scale. We hear discouraging stories like the scandal that came out of Victoria’s Secret in late 2011 when one of their suppliers of certified fair trade cotton in Burkina Faso used child labor to pick and plant, contravening established fair trade rules. It’s easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and give up on the whole idea, given the negative press.

Through meeting Lee, and visiting Akha Ama, however, I was able to put a face and an experience on the entire process. At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process—the community growing your coffee/chocolate/cotton—have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay. Too often, that means selling below costs just for the sake of having some money in pocket.

Maejantai village; the children and their families work towards a lasting future for their community.
Motorcycles ferry the heavy bags of coffee cherries back to the village.

This is not to say that the process is without flaws; far from it, actually. At the end of the line, we consumers remain completely removed from the true back story and from the people and lives involved in the products we buy and use. But Akha Ama’s story, with Lee as the charismatic and affable face of this operation, is but one example of social enterprises and fair businesses operating around the world so communities can better themselves—create a future for their children. It may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

What does Fair Trade Coffee really mean?Further, Lee’s story opened my eyes to the human effect our purchasing habits have on the entire global community. By lifting the common consciousness, by seeking out the simple ways to support and give back in everyday life, we will be able begin lifting up the global community. It’s usually a small thing to tweak our buying habits. For myself, a habitual purchaser of coffee and chocolate, my new-found awareness has led me to seek the chance to support companies making an extra effort. I will spend more to ensure that the root communities behind our goods are treated with respect. Stemming from my physical journey to understand coffee came a new journey to match my actions to my belief in our shared humanity and the common good.

To Lee, thank you. The Akha Ama Coffee shop was my refuge in Chiang Mai, and the community of expats and locals you have assembled in the coffee shop are a testament to the goodness and possibilities that are out there if you look for them.

This post blends time and space and represents the sum of the two Coffee Journeys I took with Akha Ama; the photos from each journey are interspersed. For more photos, enjoy the additional photo gallery and Quick Tips information.

Quick Tips for Visiting Akha Ama Coffee

Where: 9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Rd, Soi 3. The coffee shop is in the Santitham are, just off the Northwest corner of the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand: directions.

When: The Coffee Journeys take place twice annually and sell out months in advance. Lee is open with his story, however, and you can support Akha Ama Coffee by visiting the shop, buying coffee as souvenirs for family,  and supporting their efforts to grow the Akha Ama brand.

Why:  Because Akha Ama is a social enterprise (a for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission) worth supporting–it’s a community grown initiative and empowers the Akha villagers to support themselves and their families for years to come.

sunset bagan burma

A Little Thanks… For the Lessons We Learned from the People We Met

Traveling with my niece last year through Southeast Asia has taken on a surreal quality over the past several months since we returned home. Intellectually I know that it was not so long ago that she and I were side-by-side on an airplane, a grin on her face mixed with equal slices of fear and enthusiasm for her first plane ride . . . and a doozy it was. It took us nearly two days to get to Chiang Mai, Thailand, but once there, it felt like a return to home for me—it is a city I know quite well—and for my niece Ana, it was a safe spot for a new adventure.

The adventure turned out so much better than I could have hoped for when we decided homeschool and travel. That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges—we had no idea the adjustments that were in store for both of us—but over the course of the months we grew closer as we found activities and interests that coincided and helped us explore together. And we met new friends. Many, many new friends from all walks of life and each one with a lesson to share that went far beyond what I alone could ever teach her.

And for each of those people who came into our lives in Southeast Asia with a lesson, a friendship, and a shared idea—well, to each of them I owe a sincere thank you. It is with the influence of the community of people we met along the way that our more than six months abroad were so successful. Though this list is not exhaustive of the lessons learned and friends met, it is more a sample of the nature of friends on the road and the value I found in exposing my niece to people from all walks of life. It’s a thank you through the lessons and ideas each person has inspired in Ana and me:

Ambition and Action Cause Real Change

The friends at the Akha Ama coffee shop in Chiang Mai were the very first faces we saw when arrived in town and they set the tone for the many new types of people we would meet over our six and a half months on the road.

Lee, your inspiring story of how you worked to bring a better income and future to your community of Akha villages is a clear example of how much a single person can accomplish. After visiting your rural village, it struck Ana as remarkable that you purposefully and passionately pursued your education, and then took that education and built a business that catalyzed lasting change for your community. Whenever we visited the Akha Ama coffee shop in town, I knew you and Jenny, your assistant, would have a quick smile and friendly humor to greet us.

Lee, Ana, and Sean ride in a pickup truck to Lee’s village in the hills around Chiang Rai, Thailand to learn about coffee production and how Lee’s village produces the coffee used at the coffee shop Ana and I loved to visit.

Embrace Joy and Lifelong Learning

With the responsibility for my niece’s welfare, I sometimes forgot to enjoy the simplicity of pausing for the moments of joy in our days.

Jodi, thank you for bringing the silly, the fun, and the occasionally absurd into our lives. We laughed. A lot. And you made us both think. Thank you for always asking Ana thoughtful questions about each new experience. Education is a life-long journey to be lived outside of the classroom and you are a living example of the curiosity I hope Ana shows for learning throughout her life.

I believe the top one is Jodi explaining the Bangkok riots to Ana, and the rest are the two of them being goofy all over the city . . . a fact that baffled many of the people who saw us bowled over laughing on a daily basis. :)

A fun gif of Monique, Jodi, Ana and me on a street corner in Bangkok trying to simultaneously jump. We failed, but had a blast doing it (and thoroughly entertained a whole lot of passing Thais!).

Generosity Comes in All Sizes

Having friends was a major concern for my niece before we left, and I had hopes that Ana and Em, the nine year-old from the GotPassport family, would hit it off. And they did.

Em, your vibrancy and imagination made every day trip and outing an adventure for us. I love looking back at the many imaginative ways you two found to interact with the world we explored together (jumping, sliding, digging, coloring, tasting . . . you name and you two found a way to do it somewhere along the lines). Thank you to A and J, both of you take a very hands-on role in educating your daughter, and I was so grateful to spend time with you on the road in both Thailand and Myanmar and for your generosity every moment of our time together.

Ana and M were fast friends and they enjoyed taking in the sunset together in Bagan, Burma

New Friends Inspire New Goals

When we left the United States, Ana had a very specific framework for her dreams – her life experiences up until that point influenced who she thought she could become.

To Dani and Jess, I say thank you. You both were such a positive influence on Ana, and she looked forward to each time our paths crossed throughout Southeast Asia (first in Chiang Mai, then Laos, then Chiang Mai again, and we capped it off with a week in Cambodia). Dani, you have truly inspired Ana to learn your native language, German. And then French, Spanish, Mandarin . . . well, once she discovered how great you were, she realized that learning other languages opens up the world to so many new possible friends, ideas, and opportunities. Jess, you are so much “cooler” than me in teen terms . . . which made you an idol of sorts and a confidante when life on the road became overwhelming for Ana. You both have opened her mind to friendships and opportunities that span cultures, languages, ages, and lifestyles.

Dani, Jess, Ana and I goofed around as we visited the baby tigers at Tiger Kingdom in just outside of Chiang Mai.

Children Learn Through Doing

Naomi, thank you for your unique understanding of how children work, and for your guidance in those first few weeks of our trip. The ideas and projects you suggested on ways to engage my niece with the world were spot on. We hunted down beads for bracelet-making projects, and took in artists and workshops throughout our trip to keep Ana’s hands actively doing, which in turn engaged her mind every day. Ana made traditional stencils in Laos and learned first hand how the monks paint the intricate designs on the Buddhist temples. We learned how to dye and weave silk, we made traditional crafts to match the local holidays, we hiked, we rode bikes down bumpy roads. Each activity was an adventure in its own right and we both thank you for your many kindnesses and your friendship.

Ana used a set of chisels, and, under the instruction of a former monk, she learned how to cut out a set of stencils that monks traditionally use to decorate the temples.

Kids Can Impact the World Too

The time we spent regularly volunteering with the We Women Foundation in Chiang Mai impacted Ana in ways I am still witnessing months later. Twice a week for several months Ana and I taught a Burmese refugee how to speak English. Ana and I planned our lessons together, came up with games and activities and spent five hours a week teaching English to a twenty-something Shan refugee. We didn’t change the world, I was honest with Ana and upfront about how each person can only take tiny steps to cause positive change. What Ana left with though, was the knowledge that one person in this world now has more job opportunities and the ability to perhaps earn money for her family because we started her down the road of learning the English language. It was a small act, but tangible. So to We Women, and to our motivated and eager student, thank you.

Ana and I tutored a Burmese student from the We Women foundation twice a week while we lived in Chiang Mai.

People are Inherently Kind

Our media in the United States is quick to paint the rest of the world with twin brush strokes labeled: dangerous and strange. Thailand is a wonderful country for a first-time adventure, I chose Thailand specifically because I wanted my niece to see that warmth and kindness are traits offered freely by people all over the world. Ana laughed daily with the street vendors who patiently corrected her beginner Thai and delighted they delighted in the fact that she was learning their language. And in Burma we found a sweetness of nature and hospitality that belied the only stories that seem to make international headlines. Ana played games of kick the ball with children all over Southeast Asia who shared a common love for play; a language far more important than spoken language.

Ana and the children in Tha Suang bonded over a box of colored pencils and some paper while we whittled away a six hour wait for our tuk-tuk in Laos.

There is Always Time for Gratitude

My life got busy this summer, and though I wrote pieces of this story months ago I somehow never quite finished it. But gratitude is important. And so, thanks goes to the many other people in our lives over the past year.

Sean and Eva, thank you for the conversations and friendships. And doubly thank you for taking Ana to the movies and bringing me young coconuts for rehydration when I was sick. 

Paddy, thank you for running the Christmas 10K with us; being accountable to you helped us stay motivated to train for the run and wake up at the ungodly hour of 4 am. 

Monique and Steve, your joy was infectious and we loved having friends with whom we could wander and explore the busy streets of Bangkok. 

Dustin from Skinny Backpacker, thank you for always asking about Ana’s school classes each time we met up, it drew her into even the most adult-centric of our gatherings and made her feel welcomed.

And thanks to Catherine Bodry, Dan and Lindsay, Chais and Shawna, James, and Anna in Phnom Penh.

Impermanence and Change are a Part of Life

Life on the road is a series of ever-changing circumstances, and I’d go so far as to say that’s a quality of life as well. I know I am not alone in a desire to cling to structure and fear change. But change is natural and many experiences in Ana’s life will be impermanent. Although children thrive on structure and routine, there is a time and place for everything.

We had our routines in place while we traveled, our patterns for eating, school-work, and exploring. But beyond those guidelines, life is messy.

We had to say goodbye to good friends and people Ana may never meet again. We found tiny towns we loved deeply, and left knowing even if we returned, we would never fully return to this moment in time.

This is far more philosophical than the rest of the lessons, but I value adaptability and I think life on the road has given Ana resilience, adaptability, and an acceptance of change that we learned through each person we met and each lesson they taught us.

~Shannon

animist beliefs burma

A Little History… Myths and Spirits in Modern Myanmar

A tiny bell tinkled in the light whisper of wind outside the inner temple, the faint music audible inside the small prayer room despite the crush of bodies kneeling prostrate in front of the gilt Buddha. After paying my respects to Buddha, Buddhism, and Burma inside the room, I continued circling the tall zedi, the Burmese word for stupa. My friend’s young daughter, M, instructed my niece Ana on Buddhist history and prayer rituals. They bowed their heads together, the sounds of their low murmurs contained to their tiny circle of instruction.

coconut offering at mt. popa bagan incense bagan burma

I peered at the carved creatures adorning the outside of the temple, and it struck me I how much Buddhism and spirituality is a consistent and daily part of Burmese life. In fact, in terms of ceremonies, merit-making activities, and donations, Burma ranks as the most religious Buddhist country in the world according to scholars who research these things. Myths, animism, and spirituality form the religious core of Myanmar and none of my pre-traveling research prepared me for the deeply spiritual side of daily life in Burma and their faithful fastidiousness.

incense temple bagan
Incense floats through the air as an offering at the Popa Taungkalat monastery near Mt. Popa, Bagan, Burma.

More than 90 percent of the Burmese practice Theravada Buddhism, a fact common in this region of the world since Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka report similarly high percentages of Buddhism. Burmese society differs a bit though because they embrace the merit-making tenant of Buddhism. Meaning the religious engage in good deeds, offerings, and charity work to build merit on their path toward enlightenment…a task is not undertaken lightly.

Religion devotion suffuses the country and is the most obvious layer of spirituality in Burma. But when I looked closer at the temples and shrines, Buddha is but one part to their spirituality. Spirit worship and beliefs that pre-date Buddhism are still alive and fully integrated into modern Buddhist worship, as evidenced by the mythical figures and twisted faces of part-animal creatures standing guard on every temple, in street-side shrines, and throughout the countryside.

mount popa temple bagan burma
The Popa Taungkalat monastery is home to the 37 Nats in Burmese spirituality and sits the Pegu mountain range near Bagan, Myanmar; it takes 777 steps, fending off monkeys, and a dose of ambition to reach the top of this volcanic plug that formed a pedestal of sorts that sticks out of the mountain’s sloping hillside.

Ana and I wandered the temples in Bagan and Mandalay, examining the odd additions to seemingly Buddhist temples. Why are there twisted images of strange creatures? Who are those upright people guarding the temple high at the top of Mt. Popa?

For me it came down to why? Why are these images here? I have long noticed but never researched the many Spirit Houses outside businesses, shops, and houses in Thailand.

Well, it comes from the same, basic and ancient animist beliefs. Animism predates Buddhism, Christianity, and the majority of the world religions. And it’s funny, I have spent nearly a year in Thailand over the past two years, and yet, until Ana and I traveled through Burma and saw the fervent devotion, it hadn’t occurred to me to look more closely.

spirit house thailand
A colorful spirit house at a small outdoor coffee shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand protects the establishment.

In Burma, these statues, and animals on the temple are Nat, which are at their simplest form spirits. The Burmese believe in 37 different primary Nat, while Lower Nat are regionally influence, and often, only a small community worships that one spirit. The stories behind each Nat are fascinating and remind me of the Catholic Saints I learned about in youth. And, that’s likely a bit controversial for any strong Catholics, but the Nat all have a human story behind them—a person who lived and died (often violently) but is ultimately appeased for protection through worship and honor.

naga spirit siem reap cambodia serpent angkor wat siem reap.

There is a King of the Nat, Thagyamin, who is based on of Indra, a Hindu deity. Then, the Nat descend from there with spirits to protect the mountains, forests, trees. The Nat cover every aspect of human life: hearth, animals, crops, safety. The animist beliefs integrate into daily worship for many rural Burmese, as well as the various ethnic groups.

Then you take those basic but seemingly separate Nat concepts, and mix in the Nāga serpent spirits and you have the twined and headed snakes and dragons guarding the entrances to temples complexes throughout Southeast Asia, including the ancient temples of Siem Reap.

mermaid burma burmese nat

And to complete the picture, the animist beliefs spawned a rich culture full of myth and folklore that hasn’t made it outside Burma much in the last century because of the country’s rocky politics. Stories passed to children in Burma explain why crows are black (Ana and I read this one to get a sense for their myth culture), and Burmese folklore founded the country’s creative comic characters rivaling the marvel superheroes with their powers and lessons in humanity.

animist worship burma
An odd assortment of carvings, animals, and colors denote this spot for animist worship outside Hpa-an, Burma.

Myth, history, and religion intertwine in modern Myanmar in an odd fusion I’ve only seen echoed perhaps in the spiritual Hindu-Balinese culture in Bali, Indonesia.

Mount Popa, near Bagan in Burma, is a pilgrimage site for the Burmese, and my friends and their extended family opened up their days and took Ana and me along on their journey through Bagan’s crumbling ruins, golden stupas, and mountain-side temples. After passing nearly an hour at the mountain top temple, our group reconvened near a bright golden zedi. We discussed Buddhism, spirituality, and life. Then, when we each murmured our last prayers, the thin plumes of offered incense delicately dancing into the air, I grabbed Ana’s hand for the long descent back to ground level.

buddha hpa-an
A lone Buddha statue and aging stupa are all that is left of an old hilltop temple.

I took one last look at the faded green mountains and crafty monkeys cagily watching us walk; how easy it once was for me to believe the story of the world murmured to me in my cradle, but through traveling, I have listened to so many tales. So many gods, goddesses, and deities. Cultures full o f myths, storytellers, and history. The combination and commonalities across all the cultures — Burmese, American, Balinese — it continually changes shape the more I learn and see of this beautiful world.

A Little Happiness…Making a Unique and Merry Christmas Abroad

The sweat cooled from my skin at 7:30am Christmas morning as I pondered this holiday travel experiment with Ana; on the opposite side of the globe my nephews back home slept in eager anticipation of heaps of presents, but instead of a big traditional Christmas here in Thailand, I gave Ana an entrance ticket into a 10K run in the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon…roughly 6.2 miles of running at 6:00am on Christmas morning…

Not exactly the same.

Okay fine, not even remotely the same.

Lanna bowling Chiang Mai
Ana and I were the only two with cheery Christmas hats.

But I faced a challenge traveling on the road with my niece. How do I illustrate my views on traveling lightly, ditching rampant materialism, and valuing experiences with people over things…all without crushing the spirit of a pretty lively and typical 11-year-old girl who really at the end of the day loves her iPod and hair accessories?

turkey at bake and bite Chiang Mai
Ana enjoys a delicious Turkey dinner on Christmas at the Bake and Bite restaurant in Chiang Mai

I’m not so much with the preachy-preachy about how to go about Christmas, it’s all good whatever works for each of us. And let’s be honest here, I gleefully remember tearing into Christmas presents as a child, with red Santa Claus wrapping-paper wildly flinging around the room as my brothers tackled their new cars/figurines/swords/video-games/etc.

A beautiful Thai dancer in cheery red and greenA Thai singer rocks out some holiday carols on stage.

But from a practical standpoint, it just wasn’t possible for me to buy her heaps of presents because we flat-out don’t have the room in our backpacks. And from the goal standpoint, when I mentioned the six things I hope Ana learns on this trip, gratitude and the seeing the possibilities in the world were in the list. And they’re pretty high on the list, right up there with addressing materialism and the mass consumption model in the US through real-world examples.

So with all this in mind, I worked on crafting a day of experiences and fun events as the focus of our day, and filled red Christmas hat with a few cute (small) gifts as an addition, but not the focus.

Colorful bowling balls at Lanna bowling in Chiang Mai, Thailand.A  bowling ball Christmas tree!

To start the holiday festivities, Ana and I joined a group of traveling friends for Christmas Eve bowling, and what a hoot that was! Lanna Bowling in Chiang Mai is the cleanest bowling alley I’ve ever seen and we spent several hours swapping stories and chatter while I bowled two games in a row that came in well under 80 (yes, how awesome are my mad skills!).

Christmas eve bowling
Ana watches the ball closely as she gets her first strike!

The next day, after a Christmas Day nap to recover from our run, we hefted some of our makeshift cookie supplies over to a friend’s apartment to make some wackily improvised Christmas cookies. There are no ovens in the apartments here in Thailand, so we made do with packaged cookies and wide crackers for the gingerbread houses. Shawna and Chais (of the Full Course Travel blog) provided the mulled wine and Christmas carols while we frosted in contentment, decorating with such delicacies as: coco puffs, chocolate chex, mini-M&Ms, nerds, Nutella, pirouettes, and other fun sweets.

cookie decorating

Which brings us back to the other main event of our holiday, the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon. Yes indeed my friends, I gave my niece a long and tiring run for her holiday present. Ana and I ousted ourselves from bed at 4:15am and met up with Paddy, a friend and fellow expat, for our 6am 10K run.

When Paddy cracked a joke of this being possibly the “worst Christmas present ever” it gave me pause, because even though she was pretty much joking, there’s a truth to it…I would have boycotted this gift if I was given it inside the cozy house I grew up in throughout childhood.

But traveling is different and being only temporarily in one place means the “norms” change– I had to find something neat/interesting/different that wasn’t trying to poorly simulate Christmas back home. And, beyond just the run, the act of training for the Christmas run over the past weeks actually gave us a purpose, and gave us both an outlet for some “joint” alone time as we pounded the pavement with our iPods securely tucked into our ears.

Then there’s the accomplishment aspect of a run.

Ana didn’t think she could do it.

In fact, she really didn’t think she could make it the entire 10K and she made me promise we could stop at 6K (which was the most we ran during our training). But she did finish; we both jogged across the finish line just one hour and 23 minutes after that burst of adrenaline first took us off into the dark, pre-dawn hours of Christmas.

And though exhaustion masked some of the sheer exuberance bubbling underneath, I could tell she was proud of herself at the end.

chiang mai christmas marathon
Paddy, Ana, and I completed the 10K run in 1 hour and 23 minutes, not too shabby for a Christmas morning run!

And heck, I’ll be honest, I type away at least six hours each day, so I hadn’t been sure we could do it either.

But we did finish. And we did it together! It wasn’t typical, and she openly proclaims she never wants to do one on Christmas again to be honest…so, maybe it will take years before she fondly remembers this odd Christmas that involved running, Christmas eve bowling with other expats, and wonky cookie decorations, but I am pleased with how we shaped and changed the more traditional holiday spirit to work into something that embraced the holiday spirit and our current traveling lifestyle!

How did you spend your Christmas? Any fun/unique/out of the ordinary Christmas traditions? Anyone else do a run, I hear Christmas marathons are actually a pretty popular tradition?!

Rice Paddy in Hongsa, Laos

A Little Trial … Travel Versus, Well, Travel

Hats off to the traveling parents out there, the homeschooling, road-schooling, traveling adults with children in tow because man, it’s harder than I first imagined. My niece and I are a month into our trip and the pace of life has changed significantly for both of us. As a serial solo traveler, this past month plus was so much harder than syncing travel rhythms with another adult; instead I plan and plot out our days around school-time, downtime, fun-time, educational time…

So many “times” to figure out each day!

rice paddy laos
Rice paddies and thatched houses outside in the rural parts outside of Hongsa, Laos.

Our first month in Thailand was the trial run, and for the past ten days Ana and I have shouldered our small backpacks and we traded easy days spent in our Chiang Mai apartment for the dusty roads, slow-flowing rivers, and long travel days in Laos. The rusty waters of the Mekong River were our constant companion as we journeyed into the quiet center of Laos, stopping in sleepy villages and remote towns until we made it to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, at which point we plopped down for several days to enjoy this riverside city that offers a slice of ambling locals, quite streets, and a peek at a modern-day Laos echoing strongly with hints of the country’s hilltribe culture, post-colonial influences, and a “baw pen nyang,” or rather “no worries,” pace of life.

Mekong River, Laos
The banks of the Mekong River and surrounding hills on the slow boat down to Pak Beng.

And throughout these past ten days we navigated the even more difficult trails of actually traveling. That first month in Thailand was a baby-step into travel; we have a small but comfortable apartment, a television (though very few English channels thankfully), and a routine with old friends, new friends, and familiar restaurants. The kiddo is happy in Chiang Mai, she quickly acclimated to the nuances of westernized Thai culture suffusing Chiang Mai and made some assumptions about Asia in general from these first glimpses.

Hongsa, Laos
Definitely not raised in the country, these cows and the pretty hills of the Sainyabuli province in Laos captivated Ana’s attention, especially when the dog ran into the fray and started herding them!

And then our visas expired and the real adventure started. I warned her, Laos is not like Thailand. It’s slower and less Westernized; the country comes across in waves of rural towns, poverty, unexpected smiles and happiness, few healthcare options, less English, and endlessly long travel days on uncomfortable transportation plodding down sometimes unpaved roads riddled with potholes and stray animals.

Tourist slow boat on the Mekong River
A long wooden slow boat, filled with old bus seats for the long trip down the Mekong River in Laos.

She has taken it all like a champ even though those first days generated dozens of thoughtful questions, plaintive complaints about the transportation, and surprisingly perceptive observations about the new things we’ve seen and done over the past ten days.

On my end, the entire process of traveling with Ana is so much more time-consuming than I once imagined. And this is not an “oh woe is me, let’s pity Shannon,” but rather an observation that kids are hard work on the road! I am still working as we travel, which forces me to be more effective each day than in the past—between my job, writing posts, photo-editing, and actually schooling Ana, it’s been a lot of work and I am endlessly glad I initially decided to use Chiang Mai as a base, it was a good call on my part.

mekong at sunrise
A hazy and cool morning on the Mekong as we board the boat in Pak Beng on our way to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Ana and I have just five more days left in Laos before we return to Chiang Mai, and boy, do we need a rest! This two-week trip into Laos was essentially a visa-run so we can stay in Thailand for several months now and it proved to me all of my long-held beliefs about slow travel are even more true with children—slowing down and spending several days (or a week) in each place is far more effective for not only learning about everything we are seeing and doing, but stopping for the week here in Luang Prabang (instead of our plan to cram everything into two days) has saved Ana’s sanity and my own!

fruit shake luang prabang laos
Ana enjoys the routine of daily street-side fruit shakes in Luang Prabang, Laos.

All of that said, Laos is just as special as I remember and I’ve found a bit of inspiration that was missing these past few weeks (i.e. why the blog has been so sporadically updated). I hope all of my US friends had a wonderful long weekend over Thanksgiving (Ana and I ruthlessly hunted down a slice of pumpkin pie here in Luang Prabang on Thanksgiving and enjoyed every morsel of it), I anticipate penning more Laos stories on our epic 10 hour bus ride down to Vientiane tonight :)

sunset mekong river
The sun slowly sets with a tangerine sunset over the Mekong River in Laos.
loy krathong yee peng thailand

A Little Festival… Spirit, Beauty, and Religion Meet During Loy Krathong

Cheerful, poppy Thai music suffusing the expansive temple yard, the music at odds with the swelling solemn energy in the crowd as thousands of amber lanterns were held in firm grips. Groups of friends shared a last moment amidst the frenzy making urgent, unspoken wishes for their new year.

I watched in wonder as our plain white rice paper lantern, a khom loi in Thai, filled with hot air. I looked around me and my breath caught. We collectively waited for the signal to release our lanterns into the night; a sea of open-faced hope surrounded me.

Loy krathong lantern release
Jenny studies the flame as we light the lantern during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand
lighting a khom loi lantern
Lighting the center of a paper lantern so it will fill with heat during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Ana, M and Lee all prepare the lantern for release during Loy Krathong in Mae Jo, Thailand

Expressions indelibly etched on each person’s face showed hope and the lure of infinite possibilities, the promise of a clean slate. It was no doubt written clearly on my face too. I took those last moments to tune out the cheery music and quickly take stock of the previous year, and to look forward with my hopes for the coming year. I filled my mind my wishes, hopes, dreams and fears and propelled each one into our group lantern. As I yearned to fill the lantern with that hope, the go-signal gently swept across the huge crowd.

On a pulse of energy, the lanterns slipped from our fingertips. Ours took one unsteady lurch before jolting upward, the cool nighttime breeze collected our orange orb and swept it away from us, into the dark sky. As more joined ours, each illumination shifted the night sky from an impossibly dense black to a deep blue. The sheer number of hopes and wishes seemingly overpowered the night’s ability to stay dark.

I looked down at Ana as the blanket of lanterns floated higher. The distant pinpoints of light painted slow-moving constellations across the night sky, and I saw the light sheen of tears echoed in her eyes as well.

A sea of amber colored lanterns during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand A wave of lanterns swiftly float into the air during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Ana does her part to light the lantern during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand Ana and me as the lanterns float away during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Lantern release at Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand
A wave of lanterns swell into the sky during the first lantern release for Loy Krathong and Yee Peng festivities

The release lit a spark of sweet hope for this coming trip with Ana. The collective energy swelled around us, filling me with enough giddy anticipation to do a little dance to the cheery Loy Krathong song still pumping from the speakers.

The lantern release takes place a bit outside of Chiang Mai, at a temple complex near Mae Jo University and the evening event jump-started an entire week of Yee Peng festivities. Yee Peng and Loy Krathong coincide on the Lanna Thai calendar and the joint celebrations make for one massive maze of lantern parades and krathong ceremonies throughout the week.

In the months leading up to Yee Peng and Loy Krathong, the most predominate imagery on the internet associates this week with the lantern release — and while the group lantern release lit wonder in hope in me as I watched them all float away, the festival traditions are more fully rooted in the krathong release, with the paper lanterns a more modern accent to the handmade and carefully crafted banana-leaf krathongs.

A delicate pink lantern hanging for Loy Krathong and Yee Peng in Chiang Mai, Thailand Pretty lanterns during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

handmade krathong
My candlelit, handmade krathong during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Loy Krathong occurs at the end of Thailand’s rainy season, a period of time when water nourishes the rice for a productive harvest season and the rivers flow, full and swift, toward the Gulf of Thailand. The ceremonial releasing of these small lotus-shaped rafts takes on a dual role, it serves as an offering of gratitude–a symbol of appreciation for the rains, as well as a releasing of the bad habits, grudges, anger and negativity in ones own life.

Earlier in the day, Ana and I joined two friends for a late morning craft party as the crisp sunshine filled the room with clean light. The sounds of the motorbikes weaving through Chiang Mai’s streets created a distant hum nine floors below as my friend Naomi proffered the supplies she purchased at the nearby market: banana stem bases, deep green banana leaves, and an array of fresh flowers, candles, incense and sparklers. Next week I’ll share more about the process of making a krathong, suffice to say we worked diligently for several hours until we fully decorated each base and prepared them for release that evening.

how to make krathongs for the thai holiday loy krathong and yee ping

making our own krathongs Making handmade Krathongs with supplies from Warorot market.

As the sun sunk low over Doi Suthep, a nearby mountain peak, we bagged our krathongs, wove through the light crowds. Our group started with drinks at Brasserie, a restaurant on the Ping River, where we chatted until full darkness settled over the city — well, as full darkness as expected on a full moon night.

We allowed several hours to pass with easy conversation. The river began to fill with candlelit rafts. The sky lightened once again as thousands of lanterns from all over the city danced like fireflies in the night.

Several hours later, the crowds swelled across the river. Our small group of four gathered our handmade krathongs and stepped down to the quiet river’s edge on the restaurant’s peaceful private dock. We re-positioned misplaced flowers and jostled incense sticks before lighting the candles, making one last wish and hope. Then we released them one-by-one into the water.

Ana lights her krathong for release during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand Lighting the sparklers and incense during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand Catherine prepares her krathong for release during Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, Thailand

krathongs on ping river
Ana splashes the water to push her krathong into current of the Ping River during the Loy Krathong and Yee Peng celebrations on the full moon in Chiang Mai, Thailand

I watched my handmade krathong join Ana’s meticulously decorated raft near the shore-line; we stared at the river, captivated by the flickering candlelight and stream of fragrant incense creating patterns in the dark night. We gently splashed the water until our krathongs caught the swift current on the Ping River and became indistinguishable from the herd of floating krathongs, each one an offering hope, a chance for atonement, gratitude and thanks.

The group lantern release was an inspiring event — in fact, it tops the charts as one of the most beautiful festivals I’ve attended. Thailand is my adopted home, and I’ve also traveled around Thailand a good deal too. And beyond the beautiful, there’s something magical about learning about the culture through these festivals. For that reason, releasing our handmade krathongs alongside the Thai, was magical. Our rafts of hopes and wishes joined thousands of others, meeting on a river and moving beyond the realm of language, culture, or religion. We used that raft and the river’s water to cleanse the mind and spirit and start this new year fresh and open to the possibilities.

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