Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern city

Chiang Mai is considered the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, second only to Bangkok.  Though we live about 90 km north of the city, we have had many opportunities to spend time there.  The temples are beautiful, mostly Buddhist, different one from another, but sharing common features such as the roof shape, prominent gold color, and dragon staircases.

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We spent a very fun weekend early on with our two Thai “daughters.” Nova, on the right, has Thai parents who own a large Thai restaurant in Belgium. French is her first language of about six languages she speaks.  She lived in the house with us for the first month and was part of our biochar soil amendment team, doing market research.  Tangmo (it’s her nickname and it means “watermelon”), on the left, is the daughter of two Bangkok physicians.  Her older sister followed the family tradition and became a doctor herself, but Tangmo loves fashion design and just got accepted to the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC where she will start this fall. During her three months at Warm Heart, she created chic bags out of recycled rice sacks for WH to sell.

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Thailand, especially in the big cities, has the most amazing street food scene.  The food is so beautifully prepared and presented, completely clean, inexpensive and of course, delicious.  A few images to give you an idea:

Why is no one in the states doing potato chips this attractive and clever?

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One of my favorite appetizers at Thai restaurants in the US is Miang Kham (see recipe).  It is popular street food here, along with green papaya salad, and they package it (below) to take home.

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This lady is making crepes with a sweet filling.

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Fruit everywhere.

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Western tourists love Chiang Mai because it is such an easy to handle, laid back city.  There is a wide range of guesthouses, restaurants and bars.  Here is an example of one; I love the round opening.

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Throughout Chiang Mai you can find products made by Hill Tribe people.  These are some of their hand embroidered traditional costumes.  I couldn’t resist some of the embroidered strips cut off of worn out jackets like these.

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I believe this is an infant carrier.  It has perfectly executed hand appliqué as well as the embroidery.

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Amelie and I ate our lunch on Chiang Mai’s Ping River  one day, very close to the main market. If you’ve never been to Asia, northern Thailand, and especially Chiang Mai is a great place to start!

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Thailand’s Hill Tribes

As I mentioned in the previous post, Warm Heart houses 37 children from Hill Tribe villages so they can attend school longer than they would back home. WH provides after-school support, a good diet, etc.  The Hill Tribes are very interesting as they live remotely and tend to retain much of their native dress, diet and customs.

Wikipedia says this about Hill tribes:  Hill tribe is a term used in Thailand for all of the various tribal peoples who migrated from YunnanTibet, or elsewhere in China over the past few centuries. They now inhabit the remote border areas between Northern ThailandLaos and Burma (Myanmar). These areas are known for their thick forests and mountainous terrain. The six major hill tribes within Thailand are the AkhaLahuKarenHmong/MiaoMien/Yao and Lisu, each with a distinct language and culture. The hill tribes are subsistence farmers who use slash and burn agricultural techniques to farm their heavily forested communities. Tighter conservation of Thailand’s virtually depleted forests, however, has forced hill tribe people to abandon their traditional agricultural methods. Traditionally, hill tribes were also a migratory people, leaving land as it became depleted of natural resources.

Early on in our stay in Thailand, we had the rare opportunity to spend the Chinese New Year in a Lahu village (they are ethnic Chinese).  We took three vehicles of Warm Heart children (those from that village and their close friends), staff and volunteers on a three hour drive up into the mountains near the Myanmar (Burmese) border to LaWu, a Lisu village where we spent the next 24 hours.

After lunch we visited all of the families of the Warm Heart children to distribute treats and wish a happy new year. The Lisu are of Chinese descent.  This family is dressed as they do daily.

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Evelind Schecter, co-founder of Warm Heart with one of the home’s boys and his little sister.

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One of the girls playing in front of her family’s water storage tanks.

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Here is what the village looked like.

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Here is our host family’s house:

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Chinese New Year is a big party for this village. Every family set up a tree like the one in the photo above and they strung it with lights.  After dinner, the whole village moved from house to house where the girls did their traditional dancing. We just watched this event, happy to be included in something this special.

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Before we left the next day, Noy, one of the Warm Heart girls, modeled her traditional costume with her grandpa and brother (we learned later that someone had said something right before that upset her).  This costume is a large part of her “dowry”; the front is completely covered with large silver beads.

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Noy again, now her usual happy self.  At Warm Heart the kids wear casual western clothes at home and uniforms to school.

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Mae Soon was another village we visited early on.  The top photo is one of their traditional dwellings. We took note of their cooking stoves; first the large inside stove used for the bulk of their cooking.  The smoke inside their dwellings actually has benefits for them (though of course causes respiratory problems);  it continually preserves their meat hanging above and it chases away the mosquitos.  The lower photo shows small coal burning stoves usually used outside to boil water, etc.

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The fields below the village.

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Next post:  CHIANG MAI

Northern Thailand – Warm Heart, etc

Hello again readers,

Gerard and I are sitting on our balcony overlooking the Gulf of Thailand in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.  We just spent three days touring the amazing temples of Angkor.  A few days before that in Luang Prabang, Laos on the banks of the famed Mekong River.  This is now a UNESCO protected site, a charming place where the colonial French did their usual brilliant job of  architecture and planning.  It took this bit of repose to post our first blog about our stay in Thailand.  We have been so busy working, going on outings and adventures and sharing meals and evenings with other volunteers that we have had little time to ourselves.  Never had such a social life.

Since mid-January, we have been volunteers at Warm Heart Worldwide, a NGO (non-governmental organization), located about 90km north of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s large northern city.  The founders are Americans with a heart for helping Hill Tribe people be better prepared to live in a rapidly changing, modernized culture.  They currently house 37 children so that they can go to school, learn English, and see other opportunities that might be available to them.  They also have projects for micro-enterprise (silk weaving, coffee growing), projects to help the disabled, and many other things.

Visiting one of the many waterfalls with fellow volunteers:

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An example of a typical staircase leading to a beautiful Thai temples (more photos to come):

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Early on we spent two Saturdays in Chiang Mai checking and documenting containers of wheelchairs donated by Western countries for distribution in Thailand.

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Gerard and I teamed with Lucas, the Director of the Project (the man with the blue shirt in front), a wheelchair expert who would shout with glee whenever one came through with features he knew about but had never seen.  There are some nice wheelchairs!

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Though we went to Warm Heart thinking we were going to work on a project promoting fuel efficient and smoke-less stoves in rural areas,  during our first week in Thailand we attended an ECHO conference on sustainable technologies for the developing world with Michael Shafer, the WH director, where we all learned about biochar.  It is a kind of charcoal made from burning “biomass,” things like wood, bamboo, rice husks, corn cobs, at very high heat with little oxygen.  The resulting product, when crushed and composted, becomes a “home for micro-organisms” and an excellent soil amendment.  Biochar is also a means to sequester carbon in the soil that would otherwise go into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.  Read this short and excellent article if you’d like to learn more.

Michael was extremely interested in biochar as a means to help Hill Tribe farmers improve their soil instead of depleting it as they do with chemicals, burning, deep tilling. Gerard was a perfect fit for defining the project and creating the technology to burn, crush, etc. I took on the compost side of the project.  More about our project in a later post.

The Volunteer office at Warm Heart pictured below. There are currently twelve of us, mostly twenty-somethings (except for us) from US, Canada, Belgium, Holland, Thailand.

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Two of the darling Akha girls living at the home.

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One of the children’s dorms is below.

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Thai staff members working on the new bathrooms.  These folks cover themselves from the sun and don’t waste any time.  This building went up within two weeks.

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Here is our house in Pradu, a small village 6km north of Warm Heart.  I worked hard to clean this house out and make it liveable.  I knew it had potential.  Now we share with four other volunteers.  The blue bike is ours.

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The sunset as we drive home in the evening.  My camera doesn’t capture that the entire thing is orange, from the burning the locals are doing “cleaning up” their fields, etc.  It sure makes for a spectacular image.

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If you saw this waterfall in Disneyland, you would think it was fake.  Mineral-soaked water calcifies everything as it cascades down the hill (the white rocks).  No moss grows so you can safely walk the whole way up, and it is long.  So amazing and fun!  That is Amelie with us here.  She joined us in Thailand in March before going to her WWOOFing site, an organic farm that is part of  a private IB school near Chiang Mai (she was offered an internship there for the next school year and will be starting in August).

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See below.  Aren’t these the most attractive garbage cans you have ever seen?  The whole thing is made out of old tires.  We are finding them in Laos and Cambodia as well.

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More to come.