Category Archives: Thailand

Kaveman Kayan

When Ava was an infant, Dr. Harvey Karp’s Happiest Baby on the Block was our lifesaver. His simple methods ensured that we had a calm, smiling, rested baby. So when she turned three and started throwing tantrums, Sandeep and I bought The Happiest Toddler on the Block DVD. Dr. Karp’s advice is to see toddlers as cave(wo)men and deal with them accordingly.

As is generally the case, we didn’t find the sequel that good. Ava just didn’t strike us as cave-like.

Kayan, but contrast, is a cave person at heart. If Dr. Karp comes out with another addition of Happiest Toddler, we shall definitely send Kayan to the casting call. We’ve been studying his behavior closely during our trip. Weeks of constant togetherness have given us plenty of material confirming that his toddler-hood offers insight to our origins.

When faced with sand, gravel, dirt, pebbles – anything the earth has dusted off – Kayan’s innate reaction is to cool off in it. I have heard that cavemen may have used mud as natural sunscreens. This picture was taken on a Goa beach and, yes, it was a sunny day.

When faced with a choice of utensils, Kayan prefers his hands. That goes for Chinese soup, Thai noodles or cereal dipped in egg yolk in Malaysia.

Even when ice cream comes neatly packed around a stick, Kayan would rather use his hands as a scoop.

A brand new puzzle set to Kayan turns into a primitive digging tool. That too, in a flower bed.

Perhaps Kayan has caught on to the fact that norms differ among countries. He may as well resort to the common place we all came from before we had to worry about social graces. I also know that we, as parents, are contributing to the behavior. We have generally taken a more laid back approach to parenting. We’ve noticed in Asia that kids are less restricted than in the U.S. and parents don’t obsess over every spilled drink or dirty hand. Kids run around, some messier and more rambunctious than others, and people don’t see them as an annoyance. It’s been convenient for us to adopt a similar mentality, and certainly advantageous for Kayan to hone his connection to our ancestors.


Filed under India, Malaysia, Thailand, Travel With Kids

Thoughts on Flying with Toddlers

After having kids, I looked forward to business travel. I appreciate those trips all the more now after being on the road for five weeks with two toddlers. While working, I had the benefit of doing mostly day trips, so it wasn’t as if I was necessarily running away from the kids… However, just a few hours on a plane or train provided a much needed break from the insanity at home. I loved the anonymity of being a business traveler and it provided my only opportunity to have large blocks of time to myself.  I could relax with a book (more often People magazine) and sip coffee without worrying about it scalding a child.
While I find business travel relaxing, traveling with toddlers can be exhausting. Ava and Kayan have generally handled flights, from the 16 hour New York to Hong Kong travelathon to the one hour connecting flights from Chiang Mai to Penang, very well. There have been a few tantrums and lessons learnt, but I thought I would share some thoughts we have on making plane journeys more pleasurable for the entire family (and fellow passengers).
Board last. We confine the children to their seats for as short a time as possible. We decline the airline’s invitation for families with young children to board first. Instead, we watch everyone fight for the front of the line, which is entertaining in itself. Once final call is announced, we claim our seats, hopefully just in time for taxi. Ava’s legs are too short to reach the floor, so the carry-ons just go under the seat in front of her.
Fly while asleep. This is only practical sometimes, but we plan to be in the air an a couple of hours after the kids usually nap. This way, they are tired and pass out just as the flight is taking off. Red eyes for long hauls are great for little kids who have strong sleeping schedules. Ava and Kayan slept 13 of the 16 hour midnight flight from New York to Hong Kong.
Eat and fly. Our kids are cranky when they are tired or hungry. Well, sometimes they are cranky around the clock, but it’s worse when they are tired or hungry. We’ve found that having a meal or heavy snack at the airport provides something fun for them to do and fills their bellies for the flight. Eating on the flight is also great since the inflight meals have little dishes to sample. Sorry to my friends back home in the U.S., this doesn’t apply to you, but make the most of those peanut bags. The only time we give Ava and Kayan lolipops is on a plane during take off and landing. It helps avoid ear pressure and keeps them quiet for 15 minute blocks during take-off and landing.
Use the airport playground. We let the kids run around at the airport to burn off energy. Airports are an enormous playground of escalators, ramps, elevators, and observations towers. We make games around finding our gate number and racing down low traffic hallways.
Get excited.  Both kids help us pack when we move on to the next home. It gives them some closure but also gets them excited about reaching our destination and taking out their stuff. We tell them something about our new home that will make them happy. For Penang it was the fact that the pool in our apartment has a water slide. Ava couldn’t wait to arrive so she could see it.

Take little. We already have to lug our computers, camera, diapers, and my refrigerated medication, so we don’t have room for optional stuff. We carry one multi-colored pen and some paper to draw and do origami. Otherwise, we find entertainment in the inflight magazine, duty free catalog, windows and isles.
But don’t forget the stroller.  We debated this one, but in the end, the stroller comes in handy. If it is not carrying a kid, it holds our hand baggage. The stroller is great when we’re trying to balance waiting for last call and not missing our flight. The international departure terminal at Bangkok is huge and it would have taken us 1 hour at Kayan’s glacial pace to reach our Air Asia gate. We strapped him to the stroller and sped on our way. We have a low cost umbrella stroller, though. I think strollers go through some sort of pulverization mechanism in the cargo compartment, so it doesn’t seem prudent to carry around anything fancy.
It may not be as relaxing as a business trip, but traveling with kids has gotten easier as we’re figuring out a groove.


Filed under Malaysia, Thailand, Travel With Kids

Ciao Chiang Mai

Our two bags are packed again. We’re off to Malaysia tomorrow.

It surprised us how quickly Chiang Mai became home and that we are sad to leave. In a month we’ve adopted local eating joints, formed a relationship with our non-English speaking laundry lady, found a great tuk tuk driver, and know our way around the city’s winding streets. I’ve even perfected the tone and body language that goes with Sawadeeka (hello), Kapunka (thank you) and Aroi Aroi (delicious) to the point where people seem confused when I can’t carry on the conversation in Thai. My favorite Thai phrase, however is Mai Pen Rai, loosly translated as no worries. It sums up the attitude of Thailand very well. People are gentle, there’s always a smile, and despite the laid back vibe, things always seem to work out just fine. I’m sure we’ll be using Mai Pen Rai many times during our trip when things are more challenging. We are only one month into our journey, but our time in Chiang Mai has made our family closer and happier than we have been in a long time.

We still can’t get a good family shot where we are all looking at the camera together, but here are some happy faces saying goodbye to Chiang Mai.

See you in Penang!


Filed under Thailand

Elephant Lessons in Chiang Mai

Elephants are revered in Thai culture as symbols of royal power and spiritual features. They have also been exploited and neglected in many ways. When Thailand banned logging in 1989, thousands of logging elephants found themselves out of jobs and unable to return to the wild. Their upkeep proved too expensive and many were abandoned or neglected. Some ended up begging with handlers on the streets of cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Elephants faced abuse at the hands of inexperienced handlers who saw them only as a sources of income. Many elephants lucky enough to remain wild were poached or killed for infringing on precious crop land.

At the turn of the century there were an estimated 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Today that number is about 3,000. We spent the day with 36 of them at one of the many elephant sanctuaries in Chiang Mai. We chose Elephant Nature Park because it seemed intent to offer elephants the most natural habitat possible, and stayed away from forced shows such as elephant painting and elephant soccer.

Our day was spent feeding, bathing and generally observing the elephants.

The most lasting impacts, however, were what the elephants taught us about our own nature.

Friendship. At the park, we were lucky to meet an Australian gentleman who provided the funds to buy elephant Mae Tee’s freedom from a logging camp. He told us that Mae Tee had been addicted to methamphetamines, which were given to make her more productive. The drugs caused calcification in her joints and she is unable to sit or lie down. While many elephants sleep standing up, the inability to lie down for years has ulcerated her feet. Another elephant in the park, Mae Kham Geao, befriended Mae Tee and the two of them are now inseparable. Mae Tee has to stay by the park clinic to care for her ulcerated feet. Mae Kham Geao did not leave her side for the entire day we were there. We were told that since befriending Mae Tee, Mae Kham Geao hasn’t sat or laid down. That was over two years ago. I wish I could honestly say that I would stand in solidarity with a friend like that.

Family. We observed a family of seven elephants – two babies and five grown females. Wherever they went, their bodies moved together as if in one giant tangled knot of limbs, trunks and tails. During feeding time, a fifteen month old baby slid on mud and let out a long trumpeting sound. Within seconds, the other six members of the family sprang into a tight circle of protection around the toddler. Most of the members of this family are not biologically related. Yet, in the park, they have formed the bond of a loyal family. Watching this group rekindled our appreciation for family, whether the one we are born with or the ones we form along the way.

Endurance. Jokia is a 40ish year old elephant who used to work as a logging elephant. After the logging ban, she was passed onto abusive owners.  Handlers tried to beat her into submission. She lost a pregnancy. In the end, abuse caused her to lose sight in both eyes. At the park, her elephant friend, Mae Perm, guides Jokia around. Despite her past, Jokia is leading as close to a normal elephant life as possible.

When we left New York City, I put my wedding and engagement rings in the safe deposit box and have been wearing the ring Sandeep gave me a year after we started dating. It’s an elephant hair supported by a thin metal band. In Kerala, India, elephant hairs are considered protective. Given the ring’s low monetary value, it’s been serving as my wedding ring on this trip. Until today, when I was up close and personal with thick elephant hair, I was convinced that the black was plastic.

Working elephants were ubiquitous in Sandeep’s youth and I’ve seen many, so our reason for visiting them today was nothing more profound than having another way to explore the area around Chiang Mai. We did not expect to walk away with such a deep sense of connection and appreciation for these creatures. Elephants predate humans by millions of years. Their evolutionary line goes back to when dinosaurs roamed our earth. They deserve our respect. Apart from what they taught us today, they made me place a lot more value on my new wedding ring.


Filed under Animals, Thailand

Coffee From the Source in Doi Inthanon

Sandeep and I left the kids with Pu and Ya for two days while we went trekking in Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak. Doi Inthanon is a national park, and the only inhabitants are the hill tribes that have lived there for 200+ years. Our guide, Ser, was from the Karen tribe, who he says originally came from Mongolia, through Tibet, and most recently Burman, before settling in the hills of Thailand.

Ser’s village, Mae Klang Luang, is a Karen village of about 280 people and 65 families. It grows rice for personal consumption and flowers and coffee for sale. During our two days we were treated to the best coffee we’ve had. Mae Klang Luang started growing Aribica beans in 1974 and has since perfected the art of coffee.

Here is a coffee plant growing between Ser’s house and his sister’s.

The beans are dried in the sun on mats made of bamboo, which is sourced locally.

They are then roasted in a bamboo hut. The hut is owned by Ser’s uncle, who runs a business selling the grounds.

The hand powered grinder requires upper body strength, which makes each cup all the more enjoyable. Yes, I ground my own cup.

The water is boiled in a kettle that is constantly heated over a few logs of teak wood. This kettles sits at the village coffee shop, where residents come throughout the day to enjoy a cup while watching the goings on.

The coffee is perculated through a cloth sieve into a tin can. The locals enjoy their coffee with sugar, which was the way how we enjoyed it.

That night we stayed at a neighboring village in very basic accommodations. In the morning, we huddled around the family’s boiling kettle and enjoyed our strong morning coffee. Fresh from the source and never more delicious.


Filed under Thailand

Reinventing Christmas

I can’t believe it’s December. Exactly one month since we started our journey, and time for the holidays. This post is part of a writing project for the Families on the Move Group. You can read the links below about what other traveling families are planning this holiday season.

We spoke to a friend in New York this week and she says the city feels like the holidays. It’s cold, holiday music draws shoppers into every store, and christmas trees are lined up for sale on street corners. I love New York City in the holidays. It’s the only time I don’t mind the tourist attractions because that’s where I can find roasted chestnuts. The holiday lights are enough to take the darkness out of 5 PM sunsets.

It doesn’t feel like Christmas in Chiang Mai. We’ve seen just two Christmas trees, one at a tourist-frequented night bazaar and the other by the airport. The only holiday song we’ve heard is jingle bells. From Ava. Ava sings jingle bells all year long.

The area’s celebrations such as Loi Krathong have been so festive that we’re not yet missing the holiday spirit. We’ve been able to spend time together, share stories and eat good food every day. At the heart of it, that’s what holidays are about anyway.

In a few weeks we’ll be celebrating Christmas with my parents in Goa, India. We won’t be bringing any boxed gifts. Two bags, four people and a year’s worth of items doesn’t leave room for purchases along the way. Also, if our short month on the road has taught us anything, its that experiences are much richer and more lasting than material goods that wear, get outdated, or lost.

We will be giving gifts, just not the material kind. Our gifts this year include the upkeep and medication for an orphaned elephant in the name of  the recipient. Chiang Mai is home to many elephant orphanages that seek to provide safe environments for neglected, abused or overworked elephants. While we can’t replicate the same expriences we have had for our friends and family, we hope they agree these gifts are more meaningful, lasting and impactful than any handicraft we could have bought along the way.

We can’t speak for what we’ll receive this year. The kids have been happy with minimal toys and wev’e been fine recycling our week’s worth of clothes. Our bags are stuffed and our hearts are full. We’re looking forward to more time with loved ones around the tree and less time looking at what’s under.

What are other traveling families saying about Christmas?

A King’s Life: Forget the Gifts, Give an Experience this Christmas

Pearce On Earth: A Different Kind of Christmas

Family Trek: What’s For Christmas? Dear Santa, do we really need more stuff?

The Nomadic Family: Poverty for Christmas

New Life on the Road: Dear Mr Santa Claus Whats For Christmas

With 2 Kids In Tow, It’s Backpacking We Go:  Dear Santa, For This Christmas We Wish…

Living Outside of the Box –  The Best Christmas Presents

Discover Share Inspire: Christmas is Coming – What Do We Give on the Road?

Bohemian Travelers: Gift giving while living a simpler life

Little Aussie Travellers: Presence vs Presents Christmas Time for Travelling Families

Family Travel Bucket List – Feliz Navidad Without All the Stuff

Life and Views: Christmas Travelling

Adventurous Childhood: Christmas

Carried on the Wind: Christmas Giving

Edventure Project: On Christmas a Reflection on the Real Gifts


Filed under Religion, Thailand, Traveling Family Writing Projects

12,600 Monks in Chiang Mai

We ventured out at the crack of dawn to give alms to 12,600 monks. I am still unsure as to the reason for the event. Various explanations I got were.

“It happens twice a year.”

“It is to commemorate the 2,600 anniversary of Buddha’s enlightenment.”

“It happens once every six years.”

“I don’t know why it happens, but everyone should go and make merit.”

Once I get to what seems like a plausible answer, I’ll let you know. Or if you have one, please let me know!

We arrived to what I estimated to be about 10,000 people waiting patiently as guards lined the area where the monks would proceed. People were extremely orderly and engaged in prayer.

We made a donation to the money tree. The alms given to the monks gets distributed to temples and aids areas affected by flooding.

12,600 monks, I was assured this was the number, filed in and proceeded around in two long columns receiving alms. The sea of saffron had a lulling effect and each monk had a placid look on his face.  Despite the hoards of people, the event was very calming.

We offered rice and dried foods. The crowd’s most popular offering by far was noodle packets.

Each monk received the alms in their urn and handed it over to a volunteer to bag for distribution to temples.

The monks dispersed to area temples and those that traveled for the event boarded buses home.

Participating in this has been yet another amazing memory from our trip. I wish I could tell you when the next monk gathering would happen so you can plan to be here, but I still have to figure that one out.


Filed under Religion, Thailand

Learning to Cook Thai Food

Our family has a symbiotic relationship when it comes to food. I love to cook everyone loves to eat. So when I asked Sandeep to take care of the kids for a day while I learnt to cook Thai food, he happily obliged.

Choosing a cooking school in Chiang Mai is an event in itself. It seems as though everyone knows someone who runs one. Even Google yields 1,040,000 results for “cooking school Chiang Mai”. The food everywhere has been great, so I figured quality would be a given at any school. The variables came down to menu, instructor and location.

Almost every school had a five course menu of salad, soup, stir fry, curry, and dessert. I ruled out any schools that required the class to agree on parts of the menu as I had predetermined exactly which Thai dishes I wanted to perfect. Tripadvisor came in handy for reviews on instructors. In the end, I chose Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School because it offered a full day course on a farm. I also liked that the owner, Gayray, has a mission that “We would like to show every one in the world that Thai woman can run the business without a rich boyfriend.”

She runs a great business.

Our instructor, Maam, took us to a local market to explain the ingredients of the day. This was the most helpful part of the course as I have always been intimidated by Thai herbs. Galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime, holy versus sweet versus hairy versus hot basil – all these were my barrier to cooking Thai food. We also learnt that rice prices in Thailand depend on species, origination and vintage. Sort of like wine. Some species, like jasmine, are preferred. Older rice commands a premium. Certain provinces are known for better crops in certain years.

Ingredients in hand, we drove to the farm in Mae Jo, about 20 minutes outside Chiang Mai. The farm would have been a great outing on its own, complete with hammocks, rocking chairs and an open view of the mountains.

Up close and personal, I sniffed and prodded each of the various roots and plants.

Maam is a drill sergeant who shouts her commands in an efficient manner. “NOW CHOP!” “STIR!” “FIRE OFF!” “KNIVES DOWN!” By the end of the class we were answering back with “Yes, Ma’am!” She blames her mannerism on being raised by an army father, but she has a great sense of humor and patience. This is her explaining the intricacies of a coconut.

Here are a few things I learnt from Maam.

Cooking Thai food, even the curries, is a quick matter. What takes time is the prep work, including all the chopping. Here are our mise en place for the curries and soups.

The reason prep work takes a while is that the ingredients are all fresh. Most Thai cooks make a daily visit to the market for produce and those that have a garden will use what’s grown at home. Even curry pastes are made fresh for the meal at hand rather than in bulk or bought. I learnt from our Tesco grocery run that processed products are much more expensive than fresh ones in Thailand, and are generally reserved for more Western foods such as cookies and drinks. While the West is obsessed with all things organic, Tesco is charging a premium for equivalent packaged goods. I’m assuming that the relative price of labor and farmland to industry must be low, thus making a fresh squeezed orange juice at the street corner a third of the price of a bottle from Tesco.

The school farm was so well stocked, it even had an oyster mushroom barn.

Most Thai dishes are a balance between sour, sweet, salty and spicy and the exact balance is up to the cook. That is why no two Pad Thais in Thailand taste the same. My most exciting revelation is that it is possible to make three distinct curries from red curry paste.

Below is today’s recipe for red curry paste. Just beware, as Maam says, that cooking is partly imagination, so this is somewhat approximate.


1 shallot quartered
4 pods garlic smashed
thin cross slice of galangal root
1/2 inch peel of kafir lime
3 inch chopped lemon grass
1 inch chopped ginseng
4 dried red chilies, soacked and chopped

Pound all the ingredients except the chilies with a mortar and pestal. When the mixture is pasty, add the chilis and continue pounding until incorporated.

To make red curry, add the paste to about 2 tablespoons of boiling coconut milk and cook for one minute. Add chicken (or tofu) cook until done, then add about a cup of coconut milk until it boils. Add 2 tsp fish sauce and 1 tsp palm sugar (or maple syrup). Add some holy basil leaves. Heat and done.

To make penang curry, do the exact same thing as for red curry, except add in 1tsp of ground peanuts (or peanut butter) to the paste before cooking.

To make khao soi, a traditional Chiang Mai noodle soup, do the exact samething as for red curry, except add 1tsp of curry powder to the paste before cooking.

In addition to chicken, both red curry and penang curry traditionally include eggplants, but you can can add whatever veggies are handy. Both those curries are served with rice. Khao soi is served on egg noodles and topped with fried noodles and chives.

Between Maam’s instruction and my ability to experience the ingredients from their origination to my belly, I’ve overcome any fear I had about running a Thai kitchen. Those at home, you can hold me to a Thai dinner when we get back.


Filed under Food, Thailand

Chiang Mai Spirit Houses

One of the first things I noticed on our drive from Chiang Mai airport was that nearly every store, home and institution has at least one miniature house in its garden or entry.

These spirit houses are a representation of the Thai people’s belief in animism, or spirit worship, which is generally practiced in tandem with Thai Buddhism. Thai people believe that, by offering a home, humans show respect to the various spirits that surround us.

It has been uplifting to leave a society that is generally turning away from religion and spiritual connections and immerse the family in a culture that is still strongly tied to the belief that humans are only one part of a larger spiritual universe.

Just as there are all types of houses for all types of people, different spirits also have different spirit houses. The two main types of spirit houses are those for the guardian of the land and those for the guardian of the home.

The guardian of the land includes separate spirits for gardens, and spirit protectors for rice fields, stairwells, animals, barns, forests, mountains, temples, waters and defense.

The guardian of the house protects the home. I have been told that this spirit house is also for the ancestral spirits that belonged to the house or lived on the land. Many Thai people provide a daily offering of incense, food, or orange Fanta (supposedly spirits in Chiang Mai love orange Fanta). The guardian of the house also helps in business matters, and most businesses, including our apartment complex, have a spirit house for the these spirits.

We have seen all sizes and types of spirit houses, from simple wooden structures to ornate mini-mansions. They are almost universally well tended to and stocked with flowers, incense and treats.

I would love to bring a spirit house for the guardian of our home back to New York City, but even the smallest one will take up half our foyer. I wonder what Thai people in New York City apartments do…


Filed under Religion, Thailand

Choosing to do Something Without the Kids

Tomorrow will be the first cultural experience when we’ll leave the kids at home, with Pu.

At dawn, 12,600 monks from neighboring provinces will congregate in Chiang Mai to receive offerings of food. A regular part of Thai life includes offering alms to monks in the early morning. The residents of Chiang Mai also have a biannual opportunity to offer alms en mass to thousands of monks. This time, in addition to sustaining the temples, the food will be shared with communities affected by the Thai flooding. We are lucky to have the opportunity to be part of this tomorrow.

Why are we leaving the kids behind?  The 6 AM wake up will put them in terrible moods and Kayan has been a real handful lately. Maybe we jinxed ourselves by bringing him to Thailand, where “Kayan” translates to “active”. Upon touchdown at Chiang Mai Airport, our son turned from a laid back boy to a rambunctious wild animal. He bites his sister. He throws stones at his mother. He kicks his father. As long as he is in this crazed state, we have decided that it’s better to leave him and Ava (who are now inseparable) out of things that are intended to be experienced in a somber state.

Speaking of somber states, we visited Wat Doi Suthep today, Chiang Mai’s most revered temple. It’s golden structures shine over Chiang Mai at 1,676 meters above the city.

Kayan ran around, tormented a Thai baby, and refused to put his shoes back on to leave. Luckily, the temple was swarming with visitors, so most of this went unnoticed.

Tomorrow, while the kids are warmly tucked away in bed, we’re looking forward to peacefully experiencing our alms giving to the monks.


Filed under Religion, Thailand, Travel With Kids