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Monday, March 30, 2009


About somtam

When I first lived in Mahasarakham, six years ago, I befriended a couple of guys who ran a milkbar close to the university campus. If I had nothing else to do of an evening, that's where I'd hang out. There was a restaurant next door. Both had tables in the open. In fact, everything was quite open in both these places. Not much separated them.

One evening there was a horrible (to me) smell coming from the restaurant. 'What is that smell!?' I asked the guys.

'That's barrarh.'

'What is barrarh?'

'Fermented raw fish.'

I discovered that barrarh is one of the ingredients in a very popular dish, somtam or spicy green papaya salad. I had no desire to try this dish but I found it hard to avoid in this area. Another popular dish here is gai yang or BBQ chicken. This is one of my favourite Isaan dishes. The chicken is marinated in local spices before cooking. It doesn't taste like the BBQ chicken we might get back home. Gai yang is usually eaten with khao neeow (sticky rice) and somtam. Every time my friends ate gai yang they ate somtam too. And they would encourage me to try some.

'I don't want barrarh.'

'OK. You can have somtam Thai. Only somtam Isaan has barrarh.'

'What else is in it?' The list included peanuts and prawns to which I am allergic. It also included lots of chilli.

In time I learned how to order a tolerable somtam for myself. 'Somtam Thai, mai sai goong, mai sai tooah, pet nit noy.' That's somtam without barrarh, prawns or peanuts and only a little chilli. I even used to order it when I was eating alone. I was making a commitment to participating in Thai culinary culture.

One day I was eating with a group of both new and old friends. One of the new friends enquired, 'John, can you eat somtam?'

'I eat somtam Thai,' I said.

One of the others butted in, 'No, you eat somtam John.' In other words, as far as they were concerned, what I was eating was not the real thing. I asked myself, 'Why do I eat this stuff? I don't really enjoy it.' So I stopped.

But don't let me influence you. From time to time I meet Westerners who actually enjoy somtam Isaan. Maybe you will too. If you get a chance, give it a try. BTW, Our Japanese visitors seemed to enjoy it.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Mahasarakham cultural visit

At Mahasarakham University there are programs for people who want to spend a week or two (or perhaps longer) studying Thai language and culture. A group of ten Japanese university students come for a visit last week. On Sunday we took them for a tour of some interesting parts of the district. There are also Chinese students at the university. A couple joined the trip. With them, me, the Japanese and the Thais we had four different nationalities represented on the bus.

First we went to Bahn Nong Khuen Chang, a village where they still weave silk and other fabrics by hand to traditional patterns. They gave them a weaving demonstration and the students who wanted to could then sit at a loom and have a go. There is a shop in the village where they stock a huge range of hand-made goods that are typically Thai—lots of cloths and clothes and a few other things too. The Japanese students enjoyed browsing and bought a few souvenirs.

We took a long drive then to Bahn Pang where we stopped for lunch on the edge of a dam. All local food. I was enjoying talking to the Japanese because some of them spoke little or no English and we each got to practise our Thai. Sticky rice is a popular local variety. One guy was taking his time tasting a little bit. I asked him if they had 'khao neeow' in Japan. They do but he said it is different. A girl was cautiously trying out some dessert. I like this Thai dessert. It's like a thick green jelly (don't know what it's called) served with shredded fresh coconut. I asked the girl if she liked it. 'A little bit,' she answered.

At Bahn Pang they dry, dye and weave a particular kind of grass. They mostly make it into mats that people sit on on the floor to eat their meals and some still use them to sleep on. They had some foam backed ones that would, I guess, make it a little more comfortable than the plain ones. I have slept on the plain ones, once or twice, back when I was in Cambodia. They have developed a range of products made from this grass: place mats, coasters, hats that I can think of. Almost the whole village is devoted to making these products. As you wander around you can observe people under their houses weaving or sewing or working in some other way with the grass. You also see grass spread out on the edge of the road to dry.

Later we went to the home of a university staff member who has a small acreage. He is a music teacher so has a little museum of traditional Thai instruments. They were pumping water from one dam to another. They keep fish in the dams and for some reason were emptying one out. They had a guy down in the mud catching the last fish as the water got lower. A few of the students joined him. They seemed to enjoy being up to their knees in mud. We had the fish bar-b-qued for our dinner.

It was a delightful day. This is not a touristy area but it's a pity, if you go to the tourist areas you see lots of bars and overpriced hotels. I think this is the real Thailand but don't tell anyone. I don't want it to get too crowded.

I took a lot of photos during the day. I'll upload the best of them to my flickr page over the next few days (or weeks). See the link on the sidebar.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009


Like to teach English in Asia?

Over the past six years I have been fortunate to have had some input from time to time into the lives of young Asian people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As an English teacher in both Thailand and Cambodia I have made many friends and I believe made a difference in their lives. The number involved is relatively small compared to the many who desperately want to improve their lives through education. I wonder if people in developed countries such as Australia realize the joy they can receive while contributing to the lives of others. I can think of two groups in particular who might like to think about doing something like this. First is the young person who might have recently completed their teacher training. Why jump straight into a job that you might stay in for the rest of your working life? You could defer for a year and spend that time in Asia gaining a different type of experience; likewise teachers who have reached the end of their career and might not be ready to retire quite yet. A year of teaching in a developing country could give you much joy as well as helping others.
I have been told of an opportunity for such a person. The university at Mahasarakham runs a demonstration school. This school is quite innovative, has a good reputation locally and is therefore in demand. They are, I believe, selective in choosing their pupils. At the moment they are looking for an English teacher for the primary school. The contract will last until September this year. Pay is not what you would get in a Western country but would be sufficient for living a Thai lifestyle while you are here. Travel expenses would not be paid. The person should be a native English speaker with teaching qualifications. Mahasarakham is an interesting place to live. It is in the northeast of Thailand which is not a tourist area therefore Thai culture is still alive and well. Like to know more? Then email me at johnshield (at) optusnet.com.au.

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Monday, March 09, 2009


Dance performance

When I lived in Mahasarakham, back six years ago, I remember I had to go to the dance department of the university to meet one of the dance teachers who also helped teach the English students drama. When I got there he had a class and I was invited to sit and chat with him while his students practised their dance movements. 

Students at Thai universities wear uniforms. Mostly they are plain black and white. Some departments have their own uniforms. These dance students were wearing theirs which included a sarong that somehow wrapped back between their legs and connected again at waist level at the back turning the sarong into a baggy pair of pants. That's what these students were wearing on the day I visited. I felt I was very lucky to be able to sit and watch them practise. It was like I was getting my own performance and it was very beautiful to see.

During that year I had many opportunities to see the dance students perform, not in the uniform but in beautiful traditional costumes. One night I was asked to be MC for a night of performances of traditional Thai dance and music that was presented for visiting palaeontologists. I've always enjoyed these performances. It's part of what makes it special for me to live in Mahasarakham.

On Friday night I was wandering around the night market when I noticed some students in the baggy sarong uniform. I knew they must be from the dance department. Later I could hear some announcements being broadcast from the amphitheatre which is right next to the night market. I went to look. In fact, there's been something happening there almost every night of the past week. It's getting close to the end of the semester and I guess the various departments have special presentations to make. This looked like it might be a performance of those dance students I'd just seen. I decided to wait and see and it was.

First there were some group performances like the one you see in the photo above. This was followed by solos from each of the students. Perhaps they were being assessed. I'm not sure but I got to sit in on some wonderful performances and had a delightful evening.

My only regret was that I only had my little camera with me. It's OK for day-to-day shots but doesn't handle the night-time action shots so well. Still I got one or two half-reasonable shots that show some of the intricate and often colourful costumes. You can see them by following the link to my photo page on the sidebar. To see the pictures larger click on them. If you are visiting this page some time after I post it you might find I've added many new photos. You can go straight to the dance photos by clicking this link and then clicking through the photostream by clicking the thumbnails of the photos both before and after the one that opens. Enjoy.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009


Shopping the Thai way

When I arrived in Bangkok less than two weeks ago my flight arrived early in the morning. Thai Airways served breakfast on board. But Ead had to get up quite early to meet me at the airport. He had not had breakfast so on the way home we stopped at a street market a few blocks from his house. It was so busy we had to park a block and a half away. Ead's comment was 'They can build a big air-conditioned shopping mall with underground parking but Thai people still prefer to park in the street and walk a couple of blocks so they can do their shopping in an open market.'

When I reached Mahasarakham last week I was surprised to see that since my last visit in the early part of last year Big C (so what does the 'C' stand for?) had built a new shopping mall - strategically about halfway between the university and the centre of town. This mall comprises one big shop that sells just about everything from electrical goods, sporting equipment, furniture, clothing to typical grocery items such as fresh fruit and vegetables and a wide range of packaged goods, plus there's a range of specialist stores and a food court. You'd think this would attract many of the university students but my observation was that while the place is busy it is not all that crowded.

On the other hand each evening an open-air market appears on the university campus surrounding the canteen. I often go there for my dinner and to pick up some fresh fruit or other items. A huge range of goods is available such as clothing, watches, hardware, etc, etc and generally at competitive prices. The students vote with their feet. This place can be quite crowded.

Six years ago there was quite a good restaurant in one of the Ajahn's Condo buildings. It was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was very convenient for me, especially for breakfast. But they've closed it now. I've learned that for my simple lifestyle a really easy and healthy breakfast, provided I can boil some water, is instant oats. But oats aren't all that popular in Thailand. You can't buy them at the night market. So, last Saturday morning I took a sorngtheau to the shopping mall to pick some up along with my favourite Thai soymilk that I pour onto my oats each morning.

After I'd made my purchases I crossed the highway to pick up a sorngtheau to take me back to the campus. There was a young woman waiting with a couple of shopping bags on the side of the road.

'Lor sorngtheau mai khap?' (Are you waiting for a sorngtheau?) I asked.

'Ka. Bai nai?' (Yes. Where are you going?')

I assumed she was a student familiar with the university and simply replied, 'Ajahn Condo'.

Shortly I could see a sorngtheau approaching and asked if this was the right one. She said it was so I waved it down. We both got on. It was quite crowded. She got inside but I had to stand on the step at the back.

Off we went, crossed the river and after the river I was expecting we'd turn left but we didn't. I didn't let that worry me because there is another way to get into the university and I figured we would go that way. It is a couple of kilometres further on. But we sailed past that turnoff too. 'Bai Mor Mai?' (Do we go to the new campus?) I asked the girl. No we didn't. She realised I was on the wrong sorngtheau and rang the bell for me. He didn't stop for another 200 metres or so. And then I had to walk with my shopping bags back to the second turnoff. From there I had only another 2 km to go. It was about midday and a hot day.

I had walked about one kilometre. Quite a few cars had passed. In Australia I would have stuck my thumb out. Thai people would happily give a stranger a lift but I don't think they would know what an extended thumb meant so I just walked. I'd gone about halfway and was passing a driveway. A woman was coming out on a motorcycle. She said 'hello' and asked where I was going. I told her and she offered to take me. So I got home safely and not quite so hot and bothered as I might have been. Next time I'll eat some oats first to ensure I have enough energy for a long walk.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009



When I lived in Ajahn's Condos six years ago, security was very tight. You had to have your fingerprint scanned to open the front door. Sometimes you pressed too hard or too soft or on the wrong angle and it would refuse entry. Then you had to find a security guard and if he knew you, he would open the door for you. All visitors had to sign the visitor's book on the way in and out. One of my friends resented this and used to give the guards a bit of cheek. (Not a typical Thai) They did not appreciate this and gave my friend a hard time in return.

This has all gone now. The front door seems always to be open but security doesn't appear to be an issue. The place is still crawling with guards 24/7. As well as the regular lock on the front door of my little flat, I have my own padlock. The lock on one of my windows won't work but I'm not concerned. Someone might be able to push it open if they manage to get past the guards and scale the wall to my level but there is a grille covering the window that no human could get through. All but the front windows have insect screens. I leave the screened windows open at night to let the cool air in. But not the front windows. The intruders I most fear are small six-legged, winged creatures that bite and may carry disease. The screens are kept shut at all times.

You can imagine my surprise yesterday evening when I opened my front door and was immediately aware of an intruder. No, not a mosquito nor a human but something in between. There was a sparrow perched on the curtain rod of my living room. But not for long, it panicked when I came in and fluttered over behind the refrigerator. I closed the door, went to the bedroom which faces the front of the building and opened both the curtains and one of the unscreened windows.

I went back to the living room and made a bit of noise to try to chase it towards the bedroom. I could hear it fluttering around behind the fridge but it didn't come out. When I searched, I found it had somehow got itself inside a cellophane bag that happened to be lying there. I picked up the bag containing the nervous wriggling little creature and let it fly out through the grille on the front window. It took off and kept going in a straight line for about 100 metres. Guess it was happy to be free.

How did it get in? I searched all the windows. There was no gap anywhere, not even big enough for a sparrow. I wonder if there will be another visitor when I get home this evening. Another sparrow I can cope with but if I find any of those aforementioned six-legged creatures, I won't be happy.

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