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Two Thai Hospitals

Michael Babcock, Thursday, March 15th, 2012

During my recent trip to Thailand I had occasion to visit hospitals in Chiang Mai, Bangkok and Trang. Here are my impressions and a comparison to previous visits. (See my previous blog Two Emergency Rooms from 2010.)

This year I visited the hospitals simply to get a Vitamin B-12 shot. I am deficient not for dietary reasons but because a problem my body has in processing B-12 and making it usable. The solution is a monthly B-12 shot. I had brought two vials to Thailand, intending to give myself the shot; unfortunately, this turned out not to be possible so instead I went to the hospital to have it done.

In Chiang Mai I went to Chiangmai Ram Hospital. Things went very smoothly. First I registered, which involved filling out a form, showing my passport and getting photographed. The next step was a doctor visit to confirm that I needed the shot. Then the nurse gave me the shot and I paid the cashier. The entire process took about 45 minutes. The cost was 212 baht, about $7.00 U.S. at the current exchange rate of 30 baht to a dollar. This included:

  • Medication: 84 baht
  • Medical Supplies: 28 baht
  • Nursing OPD Service Charge: 50 baht
  • Service OPD CHANGE: 50 baht

In Bangkok I went to what is now called Bangkok International Hospital, although on my card from previous visits it was called Bangkok General Hospital and it’s called Bangkok Hospital on its website.

When I went in, noting how much the hospital seems to have grown, I showed my registration card and they took a photograph. They then sent me off to the International Registration Desk on the second floor; a bit of a trek to find. Then the same procedure as at Chiang Mai: a doctor visit to verify the need, a nurse gives the shot and payment is made. The whole thing took about an hour and 15 minutes. The cost? 810 baht (about $27.00 at the current exchange rate of 30 baht to a dollar). This included:

  • Medication: 260 bahtOPD Nursing Charge: 150 baht
  • Physician Evaluation: 400 baht

As a comparison, when I get the shot from my physician (at her office) in the U.S. I have a $10.00 (about 300 baht) co-pay.

I also visited two hospitals in Trang. I don’t have the names. None of the staff at these registration counters spoke much English at all. I was unable to get treated at either hospital because they did not have the medication available.

A few observations:

  • It was certainly much cheaper at Chiang Mai – about 1/4 the cost compared to Bangkok.
  • The discrepancy in medication cost is interesting: 84 baht in Chiang Mai, 260 baht in Bangkok – over 3 times as expensive. I find it hard to believe that the medication costs that much more in Bangkok. I chalk it up to Bangkok Hospital adding more mark-up on their pharmaceuticals so they can make more money.
  • Another possibility is that Bangkok Hospital has two price scales now, one for international patients and one for Thais, though I have no way of verifying that. Several times in the past the fee for a doctor at this hospital was 200 baht and 300 baht for a specialist. This visit was the first time that a distinction was made between Thai patients and foreign patients and I was sent to an international registration desk: before, all patients went through the same procedure. I guess that international patients pay more: based on the previous standard fee of 200 baht for a physician visit and the higher medication cost compared to the Chiang Mai hospital.
  • Over the years, Bangkok Hospital has become much more impersonal. The first time I came, there was a doorman to open the car door and a nicely dressed young woman to escort you to the registration desk. In the past, the people at the desk were friendlier – this time they seemed distracted and harried at both the downstairs desk and the international desk on the second floor. They used to have someone escort you from downstairs registration to your next stop: now you’re left to fend for yourself.
  • Medical costs appear to be on the rise, at least at Bangkok Hospital.
  • Bangkok Hospital has gotten less friendly, even compared to my Emergency Room visit in February 2010. The experience this time was more akin to a U.S. hospital, where it’s clear that making money is at least as important as treating the patient. I would be curious to know if the Thai side of the hospital still retains more of the previous friendliness.
  • I had a better experience at Chiang Mai Ram hospital: I found the staff friendly and welcoming.
  • One big difference between the U.S. & Thai hospitals as that no mention of payment is made before treatment: it is only after that you are sent to the cashier to make payment – there seems to be no need to make proof of payment before treatment.
  • Bangkok Hospital must treat a large number of Arab patients. All of the signs are available in Thai, English and Arabic (and some in Japanese). A notice in the international waiting area tells where to go to change several Arabic currencies into baht.

Compared to the U.S., there’s still lots to like. I could never have gone to a hospital to get a B12 shot in the U.S. without an appointment and been in and out in 45 to 75 minutes. Simply wouldn’t happen. The overall costs still are much lower. The standard of care seems very good.

In future years, though, I’ll make sure to bring the medication and either administer the shot myself or go to a clinic to have it done. I may look for an alternative to Bangkok Hospital next time.


Written by Michael Babcock, March 2012

Buddhism, Ajahn Viradhammo

Michael Babcock, Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Ajhan Viradhammo, a Thai forest monk in the tradition of Ajahn Chah, is a westerner whose teachings are accessible and insightful. This blog explores some of teachings from his podcasts.

This has been a difficult period in my life. In addition to having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which periodically leaves me virtually incapacitated from exhaustion, I recently was diagnosed with pernicious anemia, meaning a severe Vitamin B12 deficiency. It was diagnosed when I went to the doctor because of increased fatigue as well as peripheral neuropathy (numbness in the legs and hands) – both classic symptoms of B12 deficiency. There’s also been a number of frustrations for various other things lately. In addition, I’ve been watching my wife take care of an ailing (91-year-old) mother; that, and turning 61, have caused me to reflect more on the process of growing old, the possibility of eventually having to be cared for by someone else.

I had fallen out of a daily meditation practice and found myself in a bit of a state, with worry and fear, that the neuropathy would be permanent and that I’d always have this debilitating fatigue.

In the midst of this, I began listening to some of the talks of Ajhan Viradhammo that are available on podcasts. Ajahn Viradhammo is one of the resident teachers at Tisarana Buddhist Monastary in Ontario, Canada, a monastary in the forest tradition of Ajahn Chah. Born in 1947, he’s roughly contemporary (I was born in 1950); he studied for 4 years in Thailand with Ajahn Chah. I’ve gotten his podcasts through iTunes, though you can find out about them here: Tisarana – Podcast: Ajahn Viradhammo.

His teachings are a good supplement to the words of Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Viradhammo’s teachings are approachable and reassuring – Ajahn Chah is sometimes a bit daunting. Ajhan Viradhammo has a practical way of talking about the teachings, one that reassures because it presents the teachings as doable, it reassures that Buddhist practice is something we can all do.

Here are some of the concepts and ideas, reported through my understanding, that have proved useful.

Understanding “Negative” States of Mind

A good meditation can bring insights and diamond-like flashes of insight and can also result in a tranquility and peace of mind that is very alluring. It’s all too easy to judge your condition on whether or not you have that clear-sighted tranquility and whether or not it persists for long periods of time.

In the midst of difficult times with massive doses of despair, fear, anxiety, worry, etc., the so-called “negative” states of mind, it’s easy to feel discouraged, to feel that all that meditation, all the awareness and hard work really means nothing. The mind set is that these “negative” states of mind indicate failure.

Ajahn Viradhammo points out that these difficult mind-states are not to be lamented and feared, rather they are to be worked with. As he says, you can’t develop equanimity if you are already equanimous. It is during the difficult times that we can actually do the work that will help to nourish positive states of mind.

This means an illness doesn’t have to be used as an excuse and an explanation for feeling so miserable (“If I weren’t sick, I could practice better, I’d be successful”). Instead, it can be used as a teacher. It’s not the illness that is causing the suffering: the illness is just a collection of bodily sensations. The suffering comes from wanting it to be different than what it is. The unpleasantness of the body can be observed in terms of sensations and the mind watched to see what it is adding to the sensation. The suffering is in the mind.

I tend to want to run away from or change mind-states that I don’t enjoy. Instead of wishing the mind-state was different, I can, instead, examine it minutely: how does it feel and what are the thoughts associated with it. How long does it persist if I just watch it?

But I think the point of it is that we have enough presence of mind to see that the very conflicts of life are also the liberators of our consciousness. Because our consciousness, . . . in the conflicting part of our life, as long as we see them as problems that we’re trying to get rid of, or that we are to be blamed for, or that we are hopeless basket cases, or whatever way we go, if we don’t see them as liberating possibilities, then we just try to get rid of them: “Get out of my way, I’m trying to get to Nibbana.” And yet if we see them as the very things where our consciousness gets localized, gets contracted, gets detached, we see that if we’re going to realize the boundless in consciousness, rather than this limited sense of self, the little body and all the rest of it, then right there, in that conflicting part, right there is the part, the source of liberation, to some extent

Ajahn Viradhammo, “Knowledge, Insight and Practice,” released 4/12/10, after about 17 minutes and 22 seconds

The Concept of a Practice

Another persistent theme in Ajahn Viradhammo’s podcasts is the concept of working on the mind as a practice.

So much of Buddhism is honing awareness of what the mind is thinking and how we get carried away by thoughts. So much of one’s discouragment from practicing Buddhism comes because it is very difficult to change habitual ways of thinking.

Ajahn Viradhammo compares practicing Buddhism or Vipassana (insight) meditation to learning of any kind. One example he uses is that a couple of times he was taught to use a computer scanner; however some time later when he wanted something scanned, he couldn’t remember how to do it because too much time had passed. Like anything we learn, if we want to retain something we need to work with it, to practice with it.

When we learn a craft (bookbinding is one of his examples), our first efforts can be pretty pathetic. That’s just how it is. With each subsequent attempt, our skill level goes up.

This leads us to . . .

It is possible to be aware of mental states and have a choice about how to react or respond to them.

Watching the mind is the same as learning a craft. An example is someone saying something that makes us angry. Often, we just react to that with anger and lash out. As awareness grows, we may notice that we are angry and then react by lashing out anyway. The next time we may hold onto the anger for a longer period of time until we fall into our habitual response. Eventually, we may even get to a place where we just observe the anger and don’t act on it at all.

Ajahn Chah says: “If someone curses us and we have no feelings of self, the incident ends with the spoken words and we do not suffer.” ( A Still Forest Pond, p. 24.) Getting to this point is a practice: over and over, as anger arises we can hone our awareness of the anger as an object (and not who we are) and habitual reaction; then we can choose how we want to respond. It is truly a practice. Even our feeling of “Oh, I blew it again” is something to be observed and practiced on.

The Gift of Repetition

Ajahn Viradhammo talks about one benefit of monastic life as the opportunity provided by repetition. If one is bored by an activity that is ongoing, you’ve got an opportunity over and over again to look at that boredom.

Well, we get that gift of repetition in lay life as well.

Recently someone who has never taken a class posted two untrue reviews obout Kasma’s classes and included a personal attack on me. This is the sort of thing that I tend to obsess about: Why would someone do such a thing? How to respond? Did we respond correctly? What should we do now? And on, and on, and on, and on: the mind can really run away with itself.

Rather than falling into this trap, of identifying with the affront and anger or trying to figure out how to make it better each time the obsession reappears, I tell myself that the recurring feelings are  not an indication of the failure of the practice: it’s an indication of the obsessive nature of the mind. They very repetitive nature provides many opportunities to see the workings of the mind and the consequenses of taking things personally. The very repetition provides more opportunities for growth in awareness.

It actually can be easier to practice in the midst of uncomfortable or negative feelings. When things are going well, when things are pleasurable, there’s less tendency to look at the way the mind operates. It’s only when I begin to suffer a little that I again start practicing awareness.

The conditioned can not lead to the unconditioned.

Ajahn Chah says: “Everything mental and physical, everything conceived and thought about without exception, is conditioned. (Food for the Heart, p. 183.)

In at least a couple of podcasts Ajahn Viradhammo talks about this – that we should not look for lasting peace and enlightenment in anything conditioned: it has to be found somewhere else.

One of the concepts of Buddhism is how happiness is followed by sorrow; how then sorrow is followed by happiness. If we spend all our energy manipulating conditions so that we’ll be happy, it will eventually turn over and result in unhappiness. Trying to change conditions will result in this endless cycle of happiness and unhappiness.

We can cultivate positive qualities (generosity, gratitude).

Ajahn Viradhammo’s teachings reinforce the necessity of replacing negative states of mind with more positive ones by cultivating positive qualities. Generosity and gratitude are sometimes said to be qualities of an enlightened being with the implication that they just flow out from such a wonder without thought.

They can also be cultivated. Ajahn Viradhammo had talked about an instance where a friend was going to be traveling to Europe. One response could be: “I’m so jealous of you.” A more generous response would be: “I’m very happy for you.” This idea shows generosity to be more than physically giving someone something; there is also generosity of spirit, something we can practice almost any time and in any circumstance.

Recently I ran into a friend who’s about to take the trip of a lifetime: he’s going to be riding (on a motorcycle) from Oakland to the East Coast of Canada. As we were talking I caught myself about to say: “I’m jealous of you.” Instead, I said “I’m so happy for you.” Fred got a big smile on his face and instead of feeling jealous, I got to share in his happiness about his adventure.

Recently I was standing at the fish counter about to order some fish. A woman came up and the guy behind the counter immediately went to help her. In the past I probably would have spoken in anger and told them: “I was here first.” They both would have felt badly. This time I caught myself: I told myself to just be generous, that it didn’t make any difference if she went first. I took a deep breath and worked on letting it go. At that point, the woman turned to me and asked if I was ready to order, that I could go first. I smiled and told her to go ahead, I wasn’t in a rush. She thanked me and the guy behind the counter smiled at me. A much better result!

One of my biggest challenges is to be generous to myself. I’m practicing not buying into all the judgments and negative opinions that the mind throws up.

This is something to explore more: the possibility that by acting generous, I can begin to feel generous. This, too, is a practice. And why not? We’re going to act a certain way in any case; if we can catch ourselves before we act out our normal conditioned response, why not try something different (like generosity) that may produce a better result?


More Thoughts on Buddhism

Written by Michael Babcock, November 2011

Wat Mahatat in Nakhon Si Thammarat

Michael Babcock, Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country and throughout the country there are numerous temples – wat, in Thai. One of my favorite temples is Wat Mahatat in Nakhon Si Thammarat. This temple is considered one of the three most important temples in the south of Thailand, the others being in Chaiya and Yala. A morning visit here is part the itinerary for Kasma’s Kasma’s trips to southern Thailand.

View of Temple

View of chedi

Its full name is Wat Phra Mahatat Woramahawihaan, sometimes abbreviated to Wat Phra Boromathat. It is found a couple kilometers from the town center on Thanon Ratchadamnoen, the long street that runs the length of the town, and is easily reached by songthaew.

This is the biggest temple in the south of Thailand. The most recognizable feature is the nearly 80 meter high chedi (stupa), which is crowned by a spire made of solid gold and weighing several hundred kilograms. The main chedi is surrounded numerous smaller black and white chedis. To the right of the chedi there’s an entrance to a sanctuary. In the middle is a stairway leading up to a platform about half-way up the chedi; this stairway is open only some of the time. The stairway is flanked by demons, apparently guarding the way. At either end of the room there are walls with interesting bas-relief on the walls.

Buddha Statues

Buddha Statues

Off to the left as you head towards the central sanctuary is a wihaan or Buddha image sanctuary. In the shape of a square, it has Buddha images on the outside around the square; there’s also an inner walkway with more Buddha images.

After you’ve visited the temple, be sure to go to the market area at the far end of the temple – they have some interesting southern crafts and snacks.

Rather than spend more time on description, I’ve put together a slide show to show some of the beautiful images found here. Photographs were taken by both myself and Kasma.


Nakhon Si Thammarat – Wat Mahatat Slide Show

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.
Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

You must have Javascript enabled to see the images.

View of Temple 1
View of the Temple 2
Entrance to Chedi
Sign Towards Wihaan
Thai Monks
Buddha Statue in Niche
Temple Roof
Temple Roof
Temple Guardian 2
Temple Guardian 1
Temple Bas-relief
Temple Detail
Buddha in Niche
Close-up of Buddha Statue
Temple Bells
Walkway with Buddha Statues
More Walkway
Inner Walkway
Temple Gong
Buddha Statue 1
Buddha Head
Temple Feature
Earth Mother Goddess
Temple Painting
Buddha Head 2
Buddha Head 2 Earlier
Buddha Image
Buddha Close-up
Buddha Close-up 2
Little Demon
Buddha from the Back
Elephant
Another Buddha
Buddha Statues

Here's a view of the chedi, which is above the main sanctuary
and several other buildings housing Buddha images

The chedi is in the right-hand corner in this view from the parking lot

The door at the end is the entrance to the chedi

Before reaching the entrance to the chedi at the end, turn
at the blue sign to enter the wihaan of Buddha statues

In 2007 we came across these novice monks leaving the area by the chedi

There are numerous interesting details in the
buildings around the entrance to the chedi

Don't forget to look up at the details around the roofs of the buildings

A view of one of the temple roofs, with its golden nagas

This demon guards the staircase leading up to the chedi

This demon and dragon guard the other side of the staircase

In the sala leading up to the chedi there are two
walls with golden bas-relief (to the right, here)

Here's a detail of the bas-relief

This is the Buddha statue at the end of one side with the bas-relief

Here's a close-up of the same statue

When the staircase is open you can go to a walkway around
the chedi, about halfway up - these bells are taken from there

This is the outer walkway in the wihaan off the entrance to
the chedi - it is lined with Buddha statues

Here's another view of the outer walkway, which has a mysterious, quiet feel to it

There's also an inner walkway, also lined with Buddha statues

At one end of this walkway is this huge gong - if you rub the
center in just the right way it makes a deep, resonant sound

One of the Buddha statues on the outer walkway

Cose-up of another Buddha statue in the outer walkway

This pillar is found at one of the corners of the outer walkway -
it shows the Buddha at the time of his enlightenment

Close-up of the statue of the Earth Mother Goddess, witnessing
the Buddha's enlightenment, from the previous image

Paintings such is this one adorn some pillars in the outer walkway

Close-up of one of the Buddha statues - painted gold and black

Here's the same statue in 2004 - before it was painted (see previous slide) -
like everything else, the Buddha statues are in a constant state of change

Here's one of the Buddha statues found on the inner
walkway, where they often are standing in a red alcove

Close-up of a Buddha in the inner walkway

Here's the same statue 4 years earlier - before restoration

Close-up (of a demon) shows some of the detail on the inner walkway alcoves

An outer walkway Buddha photographed from the inner walkway

The inner walkway has several of these elephants - the entire inner wall
has been wrapped by orange fabric, the same color worn by the monks

An outer walkway Buddha in a very different style

One last image showing several of the Buddha statues

View of Temple 1 thumbnail
View of Temple 2 thumbnail
Entrance to Chedi thumbnail
Sign Towards Wihaan thumbnail
Thai Monks thumbnail
Buddha Statue in Niche thumbnail
Temple Roof thumbnail
Temple Roof thumbnail
Temple Guardian 2 thumbnail
Temple Guardian 1 thumbnail
Temple Bas-relief thumbnail
Temple Detail thumbnail
Buddha in Niche thumbnail
Close-up of Buddha Statue thumbnail
Temple Bells thumbnail
Walkway with Buddha Statues thumbnail
More Walkway thumbnail
Inner Walkway thumbnail
Temple Gong thumbnail
Buddha Statue 1 thumbnail
Buddha Head thumbnail
Temple Feature thumbnail
Earth Mother Goddess thumbnail
Temple Painting thumbnail
Buddha Head 2 thumbnail
Buddha Head 2 Earlier thumbnail
Buddha Image thumbnail
Buddha Close-up thumbnail
Buddha Close-up 2 thumbnail
Little Demon thumbnail
Buddha from the Back thumbnail
Elephant thumbnail
Another Buddha thumbnail
Buddha Statues thumbnail

Wednesday Photos of Wat Mahatat

Previous Blogs on Nakhon Si Thammarat

  • Krua Nakhon Restaurant
  • Nakhon Si Thammarat Municipal Market
  • Written by Michael Babcock, July 2011

    Nakhon Thong – Portrait of a Thai Community

    Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, June 3rd, 2011

    The Nakhon Thong community is situated just north of Sukhumvit Road and across the canal from the large municipal market and bustling town center of Samrong in Samut Prakan province.

    (Note: scroll down for a slide show of images from Nakhon Thong.)

    Samrong Canal

    Samrong canal

    My sister moved to this community about a year and a half ago along with my elderly mother whom she has been taking care of the past five years. It’s a convenient neighborhood with all essential services within a short walking distance, including two large, open-air fresh markets, a shopping mall with a big department store and modern supermarket, branches of all major banks, and the post office. Although it is in Samut Prakan province, the town of Samrong is only a few kilometers across the boundary line from Bangkok and is very much part of the greater Bangkok metropolitan area. Mass transportation systems and freeways make commute to jobs in the heart of the capital easy.

    In many ways, Nakhon Thong is a typical Thai working class community with most of the residents living in two- to three-story townhouses or rowhouses along quiet dead-end streets and alleys. Many of the rowhouses have been converted into primary residences from machine shops prevalent in the area in years past. Most are homes to families with two to three generations living under the same roof, so it is common to see grandmas and grandpas visiting one another and small children running around the alleyways playing.

    Offering Alms

    Offering alms to a monk

    Like in many communities, there are social programs for the residents sponsored by the district government. For instance, for several weekends last year, free cooking and craft classes were offered in the open area by the canal that serves as the community’s forum. Every weekday evening, a free aerobic exercise class is given in this same space. Neighborhood meetings are frequently held here as well with good attendance and most of the residents know one another and watch out for each other. Living in the community is a district representative who visits every home to make sure underweight children are provided with free milk and the elderly and the handicapped are given assistance in applying for the central government’s 500 baht per month welfare program for the disadvantaged.

    As in many working class communities, there are cottage businesses operating on the ground floors of many of the rowhouses. Among them is a home that makes coconut ice cream in large canisters for tricycle street vendors. Another home sews striped fiberglass bags like the ones you see selling in most marketplaces around the country. Still another home makes beautiful cloth cosmetic bags for vendor stalls by the shopping mall.

    Cooking on the Street

    Cooking on the street

    But perhaps the most common cottage business is food and there are many cooks along the alleyways of the community offering a range of either pre-made or cook-to-order food. Together with all manner of tricycle, motorcycle and pushcart food vendors who regularly come into the neighborhood, busy home-makers and the elderly need not leave their homes to be well-fed. For more choices, a short walk over a pedestrian bridge by the Sukhumvit Road overpass, or an even quicker and easier 2-baht ferry boat ride across the canal will bring you to a bustling marketplace selling all kinds of fresh produce and meats, as well as a wide assortment of ready-to-eat foods. From there, a short walk across the street takes you to another large open-air food market by the big shopping mall, in which are plenty of eateries on several floors. Busy commuters tired out by Bangkok’s notorious traffic have plenty of choices to pick from on their walk home from the bus stop and need not worry about cooking after a long hard day.


    Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow. You can also click on any picture individually and either scroll through the images using “Next” and “Prev” or start the slideshow at any image. Captions accompany the images. Clicking on a slide will also take you to the next image.


    Nahkon Thong Community – Slide Show

    Community Meeting
    Ice Cream Vendor
    Ice Cream Sandwich
    Caregiver
    Chicken Vendor
    Pork Vendor
    Community Spirit House
    Giving Alms
    Making Coconut Ice Cream
    Motorcycle Food Vendor
    Motorcycle Food Cart
    Cooking on the Street
    More Prepared Food
    Slicing Crispy Pork}
    Pork Soup Vendor
    Pushcart Vendor
    Salad Vendor
    Herbal Drink Vendor
    Herbal Drink
    Drink Stand
    Ferry Boat
    Samrong Canal
    Pedestrian Bridge
    Samrong Food Market
    Street Vendors
    Open-Air Market
    Shopping Center Food Fair
    Outside Food Stalls

    A community meeting sponsored by the district government announces social programs planned for the neighborhood.

    My sister waits for her turn to buy coconut ice cream from a tricycle cart parked in front of her townhouse.

    The vendor makes a Thai-style ice cream sandwich for my sister.

    Wan, a neighbor hired by my sister to help take care of my mother, takes her blood pressure. Wan is also very active in helping handicapped people in the community.

    A pushcart fried chicken vendor visits the neighborhood.

    This motorcycle vendor is well-known in the neighborhood for his delicious barbecued pork and crispy pork rice.

    This is the community's spirit house.

    Nan, an elderly neighbor, gives alms to a monk across the alley from the community's spirit house. The woman kneeling in front makes a variety of food (in the large pots) each morning for sale outside her home as alms offering.

    A couple of doors down from where residents gather in the morning to give alms to monks, coconut ice cream is being made in large canisters for tricycle cart vendors who will come by to pick them up.

    A motorcycle food vendor makes his way into the community, announcing his arrival with the sound of a peculiar horn.

    A motorcycle cart sells fresh and pickled fruits and snack foods.

    Neighbor Keow, who loves to cook, makes delicious dishes on propane burners outside her home to sell to residents in the community who doesn't have time to cook. She also makes some money on the side by selling transportation services with her pickup truck. We've relied on the convenience of hiring her to take us to the airport on our trip back to the USA, especially with our big pieces of luggage which wouldn't fit in a single cab!

    Appetizing home-made food to go varies from day to day from neighborhood street stalls, giving busy residents choices and variety in their diet.

    Jeng, who lives across the alley from Keow, is slicing up yummy crispy fried pork belly for me to take on my plane ride home. She cooks just about any standard wok dishes to order.

    Dtia and Jae make pork soup noodles from a push cart parked outside their home.

    A couple make green papaya salad and grill chicken and fish on a pushcart outside their waterfront townhouse.

    Hohm is proud of her made-to-order Isan-style hot-and-sour salads, which sell out every day.

    Across the walkway from Hohm's cart, Oy sells a home-made herbal drink of pandan leaves and butterfly pea flower, which she grows herself.

    Oy's herbal drink is colored naturally with fresh green pandan bai toey leaves and the deep blue butterfly pea flower (dawk anchan).

    Oy's brother sets up the tables along the canal, selling various cold drinks and snacks on a hot summer afternoon.

    Petch and other members of his family operate a simple wooden boat "ferry" service to cross the canal to the marketplace for two baht per ride.

    This view of the Klong Samrong is seen from the middle of the pedestrian bridge crossing the canal. The community is situated on the right bank where the ferry boat is seen at a distance in the middle of the picture.

    The pedestrian bridge straddles the concrete Sukhumvit Road bridge. This picture is taken from the marketplace side.

    The huge Samrong municipal fresh food market as seen from the bottom of the pedestrian bridge.

    Vendors sell ready-made foods, as well as clothing and household items, to passersby from stalls beneath the Sukhumvit Road overpass

    In another large open-air market across the Sukhumvit Road overpass from the municipal market is bustling with shoppers.

    Weeklong food fairs are frequently held in the wide open area on the ground floor just inside the main entrance of the Imperial World shopping complex. This is another reason why residents in nearby communities hardly need to cook.

    Outside the Imperial World shopping complex are more food stalls under tents along the sidewalk.

    Community Meeting thumbnail
    Ice Cream Vendor thumbnail
    Ice Cream Sandwich thumbnail
    Caregiver thumbnail
    Chicken Vendor thumbnail
    Pork Vendor thumbnail
    Community Spirit House thumbnail
    Giving Alms thumbnail
    Making Coconut Ice Cream thumbnail
    Motorcycle Food Vendor thumbnail
    Motorcycle Food Cart thumbnail
    Cooking on the Street thumbnail
    More Prepared Food thumbnail
    Slicing Crispy Pork thumbnail
    Pork Soup Vendor thumbnail
    Pushcart vendor thumbnail
    Salad Vendor thumbnail
    Herbal Drink Vendor thumbnail
    Herbal Drink thumbnail
    Drink Stand thumbnail
    Ferry Boat thumbnail
    Samrong Canal thumbnail
    Pedestrian Bridge thumbnail
    Samrong Food Market thumbnail
    Street Vendors thumbnail
    Open-Air Market thumbnail
    Shopping Center Food Fair thumbnail
    Outside Food Stalls thumbnail

    Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011.

    Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 2

    Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, April 14th, 2011

    Jasmine rice is Thailand’s top export rice. In fact, most of the jasmine rice the country grows is exported to foreign markets far and wide.

    Has Thailand always grown jasmine rice? When and how did it come about? To answer these questions, a little bit of history would be helpful.

    (Note: This article is a continuation of the blog Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 1.)

    Early History of Rice Cultivation in Thailand

    Inscription

    Sukhothai inscription

    Agricultural policies from as early as the ancient Sukhothai period of Thai history through the centuries of bustling international trade of the Ayuthaya period and into the modern era have actively encouraged the people to develop land into rice fields, for the nation’s food and income security and as a strategy to extend and maintain ruling power. If you travel to the Chiang Mai area, you’ll see impressive remains and hear lots of mention of the old and glorious kingdom of Lanna (“a million rice fields”); and in the Sukhothai area where the first Thai kingdom was established more than seven centuries ago, you’ll hear accounts of the first example of the written Thai language in its best-known passage alluding to a prosperous kingdom where “in the water there is fish, in the fields there is rice…” ruled by a benevolent king. There’s evidence that irrigation canals (klongs) were already in place at the birth of the country in the 13th century. Today, irrigation still remains a crucial service the state provides to its people to grow rice. In the early part of the Rattanakosin modern era (late 18th, early 19th centuries), as much as 95 percent of farmland was allocated for growing rice and Siam prospered from exporting rice to China. Rice farming continues to be the primary farming activity nationwide and the Thai word for farmer, chaona, lterally means “rice field person”.

    Archeological Dig

    Archeological dig at Ban Chiang

    Rice farming in cultivated fields has been done on the land that is now Thailand for at least five thousand years, one thousand years earlier than in India and China. Archaeologists have found traces of rice husks and chaff in the pottery excavated from ancient burial sites in northeastern Thailand that date back at least 5,400 years. At another site in the northwest, a thin stone tool in the shape of a knife for harvesting rice and pottery containing rice husks, dating back at least 5,000 years, have also been found. From the archaeological evidence, some researchers believe that the Asian rice species might very well have originated in the inland valleys of the northern parts of Thailand, the Shan state of present-day Myanmar and adjacent areas of Laos where the annual monsoons, warm humid climate and fertile lowlands offered an ideal environment for its domestication. In ancient times, it is likely that nomadic tribes began settling down to cultivate rice by selectively gathering wild rice from the forests and from swamplands to grow and gradually improving the rice strains by selective breeding.

    Jasmine Rice in Thailand, 20th Century and Today

    Rice Paddy

    Flooded rice paddies

    Around the turn of the 20th century, Thai rice was exported to Europe through rice traders in India. It didn’t sell as well as Indian rice since the latter had beautiful, uniform long grains while Thai rice was irregular in quality with much of the grains broken. King Rama V, in his extensive travels to many parts of Europe around that time, made an important observation. His Majesty noted that the irregularities in Thai rice most likely came about because Thai farmers planted too many varieties and there was no attempt to standardize and select strains with superior qualities to grow for export. To encourage the identification of superior strains that the country could promote to improve the quality of Thai rice exports, His Majesty inaugurated the first indigenous rice contest in 1907. In the ensuing years, several indigenous varieties with fine attributes were discovered, tested in field trials, then promoted by the government to farmers to grow for foreign markets. One of the strains was Pin Kaew, submitted by a woman from Sriracha in Chonburi province, which went on to win the coveted first prize at the World Rice Contest in Canada in 1933. It became Thailand’s top rice for many years.

    But it wasn’t until the early 1950’s when a truly earnest campaign was carried out to collect native rice strains nationwide in search of other high-quality varieties to promote and export. Some 6000 samples were collected between 1950 and 1952. Promising samples from the Panat Nikom district of Chonburi province were planted alongside other selected strains from the north, northeast and central regions in field trials to compare quality. Of the 199 samples planted at the rice research station, several superior strains were discovered, among them jasmine rice 105 (dok maii 105, later known as hom mali 105), the number corresponding to the row the rice was planted in the trials. In 1959, a selection committee conferred on jasmine rice 105 the highest recommendation because of its pure white, long slender grains and sweet pandanus leaf fragrance (not jasmine fragrance as misled by its name, see Part 1). First cultivated by a farmer in Chonburi province in the 1940’s, jasmine rice 105 has since become an important breeding strain for other rices throughout Thailand.

    Rice Field

    Rice stalks heavy with grain

    Jasmine rice is most commonly grown as an in-season rice watered by the monsoon rains, since it is a light-sensitive variety of rice. While there are varieties that would flower and set seed any time of year, light-sensitive strains will flower and set seed only when the length of the day is shorter than the length of the night. Farmers, therefore, prefer to plant such rice during the main monsoon season (July to October). Jasmine rice stalks begin to flower by October when the days are shorter than the nights. To many discerning Thais, in-season rice tastes better than off-season rice grown with irrigation water.

    Today, with continued government support and stringent quality control standards, all rice destined for export must pass the government stamp of approval before it can be shipped. The active involvement of the government in the promotion of Thai rice abroad has placed jasmine rice in the spotlight on the world stage. Among discerning Asians in many countries, jasmine rice is considered the best-tasting rice in the world. As mentioned in Part 1, the Chinese, for instance, are so fond of the jasmine rice grown in northeastern Thailand, especially the provinces of Surin, Yasothon and Roi Et, that they would like to have a monopoly on all the rice grown here. The jasmine rice from these provinces is particularly fragrant and has a better texture than jasmine rice grown in other areas. I, too, prefer the jasmine rice grown in the northeast, and recommend it to my cooking students by advising them to buy the Golden Phoenix label, which consistently markets top-grade jasmine rice from this region and has won the Prime Minister’s Export Award.

    Variations in Jasmine Rice

    Threshed Rice

    Offering to Mother Spirit of Rice

    Besides where the rice is grown, the fragrance, texture and flavor can differ depending on the age of the rice. Jasmine rice is softest and most fragrant when newly harvested. As it ages, it gradually loses fragrance and becomes firmer and dryer, requiring more water to cook (see Steamed Jasmine Rice). If the bag of jasmine rice you buy in a supermarket here in the States seems to take a lot more water to cook than usual, has a hard texture and doesn’t seem to have any fragrance at all, then it’s likely that the rice is old and may have been sitting around in warehouses for a long while. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to make it a habit to check the date of harvest, if there’s any, shown on the bag (with many brands, it’s more likely to be the date of shipping, or date of expiration, which isn’t as good an indicator of the rice’s age). On larger bags of rice from ten pounds up, the label may include “New Crop” on the top, but make sure this is followed by the current year (i.e., “New Crop 2011”). The primary rice harvest season is between October and December in main rice-growing regions in Thailand and new rice is shipped out starting in November.

    With Golden Phoenix being a reputable premium label and a favorite among Asians, there’s usually a high turnover in busy Asian markets, so you most likely will get new rice or rice not older than a year. For high quality rice, such as Golden Phoenix’s, even a year-old to two-year-old jasmine rice stored under proper conditions can still retain good fragrance and a texture that’s deliciously firm and chewy – perfect for making flavored rice dishes such as the Muslim yellow rice (kao moek gkai) and the popular chicken fat-flavored rice (kao man gkai). If texture is more important to you than fragrance and you like your rice al dente firm and chewy, then an aged rice of one to two years may suit you better than the new rice Asians prefer. For a good mix of firm texture and delectable fragrance, about a six- to ten-month old rice would be ideal – i.e., a bag labelled “New Crop 2011” would be at this stage from July on.

    Importance of Rice for Thailand

    Temple Mural

    Temple mural, women grilling rice

    While China by its sheer size is the world’s largest producer of rice, Thailand has led the world as the largest rice exporter since the 1960’s, owing much of this status to jasmine rice. Even with a population of 67 million, each consuming an average of nearly a pound of rice a day (in various forms besides steamed rice, including rice noodles, desserts, crackers, snack foods, rice liquors, vinegar, etc.), half of the rice Thailand grows is exported. Jasmine rice makes up half of the country’s rice exports with China being the biggest buyer of this deliciously fragrant rice, though Europe and the United States take a big share as well.

    Rice is an intrinsic and inseparable part of Thai culture and there is no other food crop that receives blessings in every stage of its life cycle in rituals that parallel the life cycle of human beings. From annual royal rituals dating back seven hundred years (i.e., the Royal Ploughing ceremony, the Rain-Pleading ceremony, the merit-making ceremony to honor the Mother Spirit of Rice) to age-old folk rituals still performed before cultivation, at the time of planting, during the period of maturation and at the time of harvest, different spirits are asked to protect and nurture the rice crop. Rice is always present in one form or another as ceremonial foods in religious and important civil celebrations and at cultural festivals in all regions of the country. These foods often appear in the murals of local temples. Rice is so much a part of Thai identity that it is frequently used as metaphors in figures of speech. Not a day passes in the life of a Thai in which rice does not play a role.

    A new movement in rice consumption is picking up steam in Thailand: the return to heirloom, location-specific whole-grain rices and GABA or germinated rice. I hope to write about this new trend sometime in the near future.

    Note:

    Did you know that rice feeds one in three people in the world and 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced and consumed in Asia?


    Much of the information contained in my two blogs on jasmine rice was gleaned from two books published in the Thai language — Kae Roi Samrap Thai and Kao – Wattanatham Haeng Chiwit — and a few articles from Thai newspapers.


    See also:


    Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2011.

    Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 1

    Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

    Thai Jasmine Rice – Hom Mali – Thailand’s best-known rice, is something increasing numbers of people are becoming familiar with and have come to love eating, as the popularity of Thai food continues to soar worldwide. In fact, it has become so widely distributed and so synonymous with Thai cuisine abroad that some people have developed a misconception that jasmine rice is the only rice most Thais eat on a daily basis. This is not so as Thailand grows and consumes many other good-eating varieties and some regions of the country actually prefer other kinds of rice to jasmine rice.

    Threshing Rice

    Farmers threshing rice

    (Click on an image to see a larger version.)

    I read in a book on Thai food history that Thailand has some 3,500 varieties of rice within her borders, both wild and cultivated. Wow! that’s astounding! But wait till you hear this: The same passage reveals that there are as many as 120,000 varieties, both wild and cultivated, worldwide! Now, that’s unfathomable to the average citizen of Middle America who may know rice only in the form of Uncle Ben’s converted or that highly processed stuff called “Minute Rice”.

    Different Varieties of Jasmine Rice

    Winnowing Rice

    Farmers winnowing rice

    Vastly different topography, weather patterns, soil conditions, and consumption preferences combine to determine the varieties grown in each of Thailand’s many regions. For instance, in the mountainous north, the monsoon rains come early and end quickly, so varieties that grow and ripen fast are cultivated. Northerners prefer to eat sticky rice, so little jasmine rice is grown for local consumption. On the other hand, growing conditions in the northeastern region are ideal for jasmine rice and lots of it is grown there, but like northerners, people in the northeast prefer sticky rice, so little of the jasmine rice they grow is consumed there. Most of it is trucked off to Bangkok for shipping to foreign markets, where it fetches a good price to earn the country a good chunk of foreign exchange each year. In each of the regions, there are varieties indigenous only to small pockets and these are strains that native peoples of the area are likely to grow for their own consumption. Indigenous rices are easier to grow and are pest-free as they have selectively adapted to the conditions in particular areas – perhaps over centuries or, possibly, even millennia. They are also usually higher in nutrients than introduced hybrids.

    Harvesting Rice

    Farmers harvesting rice

    Even with jasmine rice, there are varying strains developed for cultivating in different areas to match local growing conditions, ensuring a bountiful harvest of the best rice each locale can grow. This may explain why the jasmine rice you buy in your local market in America can differ considerably from label to label – in fragrance, texture and flavor. The Chinese, who are very fond of jasmine rice, know this and can be very selective when buying rice from Thailand. For instance, Hong Kong would only buy the jasmine rice grown in northeastern Thailand, particularly in the provinces of Roi Et, Yasothon and Surin. The jasmine rice from this area is much more fragrant and softer in texture than jasmine rice from other parts of of the country. As for the jasmine rice grown in the much more temperate climates of Florida and Texas, you might as well forget it – it simply is no longer jasmine rice. (See Kasma’s article Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali for her experience with Texas Jasmine Rice). Thailand holds the patent for jasmine rice, so it’s unlikely anyway that the rice grown in these two states can claim to be true hom mali jasmine rice.

    Last year a food agent wanted me to try out a “super-premium jasmine” rice imported from Vietnam in hopes that I would recommend it on my website. He sent me a 25-pound sack. I cooked it once and that was quite enough! The rest went out the door with my Vietnamese kitchen helper who was very happy since this was the rice she’s used to eating. By no stretch of the imagination is it jasmine rice and I find it very misleading for an inferior rice with absolutely no fragrance, a hard texture and a greyish tint to be called jasmine rice, or super-premium for that matter.

    Street Vendor of Rice

    Street vendor at Thong Lo Market

    People who are into food know that the same variety of red delicious apple grown in the Sierra foothills will taste different from the fruit grown in their own backyard in the Bay Area. The soil here is different and the climate is different, so it should not be surprising that the fruits don’t taste quite the same. Those of us who love good food know from experience that such and such a place grows the best this and that and, if we have a choice, we would buy a particular food from the place where it grows best. Take farmer’s markets, for instance. Why does the produce from some farms taste much better than the same produce from other farms? Is it the soil? micro-climates? cultural practices? Bing cherries are not just bing cherries, concord grapes are not just concord grapes, Santa Rosa plums are not just Santa Rosa plums, and so on. The same is true with rice, which being pretty much like grasses might have even the greater ability to morph into something completely different when conditions are far from ideal. Jasmine rice is, therefore, not just jasmine rice: where it is grown is very important. The Chinese know this and Thais know this, but many Americans have yet to understand the difference.

    Another example: the Napa Valley is known for its perfect climate for growing wine grapes, so the wines produced here can naturally be expected to be much, much better than any Thailand can produce with the grapes she can grow in her humid tropical climate. I don’t recommend wine connoisseurs drink Thai wine just as I don’t recommend foodies to eat American-grown jasmine rice. And with rice just as with wine, not only does where it come from matter but its age and how it is stored before it makes it into your kitchen. (For more information see Jasmine Rice – Part 2.)

    Buying Rice in Thailand

    Rice at Or Tor Kor

    Rice for sale, at Or Tor Kor

    Buying rice in fresh, open-air marketplaces in Thailand is a much different experience than buying rice in American supermarkets. Vendor stalls usually carry a large assortment of Thai-grown rice and sell them bulk from big opened sacks, baskets, buckets or tubs. You can touch, feel, see and smell the grains without a plastic covering or paper box being in the way before you make your decision which to buy. Signs identify each rice by the variety name, but usually also tell you where it is grown, whether it is new or old rice and, sometimes, how the rice cooks up (i.e., soft, not hard when cold, etc.). For whole grain rices sold in more health-conscious markets, the health attributes of the particular grain may also appear on the sign. Big rice vendors often carry several kinds of jasmine rice and, if you examine closely, you can compare the quality by their appearance and aroma. Depending on the strain, age, place of cultivation, time of maturation (i.e., rice maturing early is “light”, maturing late is “heavy”) and time of harvest (i.e., whether it is an in-season rice watered by the monsoon rains, or off-season rice grown during the dry season with irrigation water), as well as how the grains are milled for white rice, quality and price can vary. Discerning Thais claim to be able to taste the difference between rice harvested at different times of year, much like a gifted wine connoisseur can distinguish between wine vintages.

    Rice for Sale

    Another Or Tor Kor vendor

    The photo to the right shows a rice stall at Or Tor Kor (pronounced Aw Taw Kaw) market in Bangkok carrying five different kinds of white and whole-grain jasmine rices – the four sacks in front, with the leftmost bag being new-crop jasmine rice from Chiang Rai, and the leftmost bag on the top row, which is new-crop jasmine rice from Yasothon. Signs for the three whole-grain jasmine rices in the front row identify the varieties and describe what they are good for (i.e., the sack with the red sign is new-crop pink whole-grain jasmine rice that can treat numbness and is a tonic for the bones). (See our blog on Aw Taw Kaw (Or Tor Kor) Market in Bangkok.)

    Why is it Called Jasmine Rice?

    What is jasmine rice anyway? Its name may be misleading to unknowing westerners thinking that the rice is infused artificially with the essence of jasmine blossoms. In actuality, the rice is naturally fragrant but the aroma is not that of jasmine flowers but closer to that of “pandan” leaves (or bai toey in Thai). When the native rice was first discovered around 1950 (more in part 2, coming soon) and brought into cultivation by a farmer in Chonburi province, it was cherished because the grains, when milled, had a beautiful long shape, a shiny translucence and were white like jasmine blossoms, accompanied by a distinct sweet aroma (the rice does contain a substance also found in sweetly fragrant pandan leaves). Initially, it was given the name “white jasmine blossom rice” (kao kao malin or kao kao dok mali), but sometime later people mistakenly began calling it “fragrant jasmine” (hom mali) rice and the name somehow stuck.

    How did jasmine rice come about to become Thailand’s most famous rice? First, some history would be helpful. So check out my next blog post – Jasmine Rice – Part 2.)


    See also:


    Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2011.