Categories
Travel

A Hidden Treasure at Pha Taem National Park

Pha Taem National Park in Thailand’s northeastern (Isaan) region is best known for its enormous three- to four-thousand-year old petroglyphs, adorning the steep vertical wall of a sandstone cliff overlooking the Mekong River and Laos. Known to be the world’s largest grouping of prehistoric cliff paintings, more than 300 pictographs in red and ochre colors stretch over 180 meters of cliff wall and include subjects like an elephant, turtle, fish of different sizes, fish traps and storage jars, human-like figures, handprints, tools and utensils, farming and hunting scenes and geometric designs. Together they represent the finest prehistoric paintings in the country.

Cliff Painting 1
Cliff painting of elephant
Cliff Painting 2
Cliff paintings

Pha Taem Cliff 2
Trail to view petroglyphs

Besides the cliff paintings, impressive rock formations and graceful seasonal waterfalls are major attractions drawing park visitors. Located in the border province of Ubon Ratchathani, the park spans the most easterly points in the country and is a popular place for vacationing Thais to come and watch the sunrise to welcome in the New Year.

Click on photos to see a larger image.

Sao Chailiang Rock Formation
Sao Chailiang Rock Formation

But on my most recent trip there in December 2009, the most exhilarating highlight for me was none other than a wildflower field on a rocky plateau in full bloom and abuzz with bees. Perhaps it’s because it’s a new and completely unexpected experience, but more likely because of the captivating beauty of the vast plateau-top meadow – a little paradise for a nature lover like me.

Pha Taem Meadowland
Meadowland near Soi Sawan waterfall

It was all unplanned. I had just climbed back up the steep trail after viewing the petroglyphs and was waiting at the cliff-top Visitor’s Center for the rest of my group of American travelers, who had decided to continue on the long trail, to return. While browsing local textile products (a main focus of my Northeast tour is visiting traditional weaving villages: see A Treasure of Northeastern Thailand: Weaving Villages) in the gift shop, a park official running the shop started asking me about my group.

Park rangers in the parklands of the Northeast seldom see casual groups of American travelers. They always seem eager to greet western tourists, but because most have a very poor command of the English language, they are limited to giving information about the sights to see through the Thai friends accompanying them.

Various Wildflowers
Various wildflowers

I asked him whether the beautiful Soi Sawan (“Heaven’s Necklace”) waterfall was still flowing at this time of year. Not much, he replied, as it had been a particularly dry year. But he insisted that I should take my group to the last of the wildflower fields still in bloom, situated in the same section of the park as the waterfall. Since I hadn’t visited the wildflower field before, I inquired about its accessibility – whether it’s by a road we could drive up to or whether we had to hike in and how long a walk, etc. Our group had a packed schedule the previous day exploring Mukdahan, including the fascinating other-worldly terrain of Phu Pha Thoep National Park, and then driving a long distance on rugged roads to reach Khong Jiam in the late afternoon. It’s getting close to mid-day and I had promised them a free afternoon to relax at our charming resort with sweeping views of the Mekong River, so if the wildflower field wasn’t very accessible, I probably wouldn’t be able to talk my group into going.

Two Wildflowers
Dusita and white star wildflowers

Noticing that a couple of the older people in my group had spent most of the morning waiting at the Visitor’s Center since they found the trail to view the petroglyphs too steep and difficult to negotiate, the ranger hesitated for a moment, then picked up his phone and made a quick call. When he completed his call, he informed me that he’s made special arrangements for a ranger at that section of the park (about 20 kilometers away) to take us to the meadow in our own vans.

Sure enough, when we arrived at the Soi Sawan waterfall parking area, a park official hopped into our van while another ranger lifted the barricade to a narrow unpaved road and in we entered. Along the way, I noticed signs pointing to a few other wildflower fields, but the ranger told us that those were done blooming and the only one still in bloom was the furthest one in. We also drove passed a handful of domestic tourists walking along the dirt road but I never saw them again. I thought to myself that if we had tried to walk in to the wildflower field, we probably would have given up like these tourists after finding nothing special at the first couple of bloomed-out fields.

Sundew Flowers
Two sundews among white wildflowers

The road finally dead ended. There was a storyboard with pictures of some of the wildflowers we would see in the field. Many of them had been named by HRH the Queen who’s very fond of these wildflower fields and visited often at the end of the rainy season. Among the ones we would see were the striking deep purple-blue dusita (Utricularia delphiniodes) and the lovely orchid-like yellow soi suwanna (Utricularia bifida).

Another Sundew
Lavender-flowered sundew

A pathway from the signpost opened up into an enchanting meadow carpeted with millions of tiny flowers waving in the breeze. It’s a magical sight to behold and its all-encompassing aura, from open blue skies and fluffy clouds to the masses of colorful flowers and weeping boulders that water them, was something infinitely larger than photographs could ever capture or words could adequately describe. It didn’t take long for most of the members of my group to drop down on their knees to take close-up pictures of the gorgeous flowers, as if to worship at nature’s altar.

It was very quiet and peaceful there and we were the only people to be seen on the trail meandering through and around the vast meadow. A soft breeze played with the flowers, a light fragrance filled the air and the humming sound of bees could be heard all around as they busily gathered nectar from the flowers.

Sundew Close-up
Close-up of a sundew

After soaking in the breathtaking scenery, I soon noticed close to the ground, interwoven in the tapestry of the beautiful and delicate flowers, a hidden gem – a colony of sundews (Drosera), a family of insect-devouring plants that commonly thrive in boggy areas. (They are so named because of the dew-like drops that cling to hairlike follicles or tentacles all around the plants, but these are not at all dewdrops but a sweet sticky secretion that both attracts and entraps the insects the plants feed on.) For an avid gardener like me, who holds a fascination for carnivorous plants and grows many varieties in my own Oakland garden, seeing so many sundews happily growing in their natural habitat was cause for much excitement. We soon also found a few patches of water-loving carnivorous nepenthes pitcher plants.

For these bog plants to survive, this field would have to maintain some measure of moisture year-round. Indeed the field was weeping with water perhaps seeping from underground springs. To be in the middle of a lovely bog in full bloom on a rocky plateau in the dry Isaan region during the dry season of a drought year was something quite extraordinary!

Mekong River Sunset
Sunset on the Mekong River in Khong Jiam

When I visit again in the future, I hope to see a glorious wildflower field complete with all the makings of paradise. I am hoping, too, that if I run short on time, that I’ll be able to talk a park ranger into giving us the same kind of VIP treatment we so graciously received on my last visit.

Note: Finding the unexpected wildflower field was an example of the unplanned experiences that could happen on Kasma’s trips; she was always open to finding something new and delightful. She retired from the trips in 2020. [note by Kasma’s husband, Michael]


Pha Taem National Park Slide Show

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Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

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Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011.

Categories
Cooking Food

The Universal Vegetable Recipe

One of Kasma’s recipes is what I think of as “The Universal Vegetable Recipe.” It can be used for nearly any vegetable of your choice and come out delicious. Let’s call it “Oyster Sauce Vegetables” because the most important ingredient is the oyster sauce. The important thing to remember is that you need a really good oyster sauce and a really good fish sauce; and the fresher the vegetables, the better!

Dragonfly Oyster Sauces
Premium & Super Premium Oyster Sauce

There’s only one brand of oyster sauce that Kasma recommends and it is the Dragonfly brand. We have no affiliation at all with this brand. We just like it. Dragonfly makes three different kinds: 1) Dragonfly Oyster Sauce; 2) Dragonfly Premium Flavored Oyster Sauce; and 3) Dragonfly Super Premium Flavored Oyster Sauce. We like the product for two reasons: 1) It has no additives or preservatives; 2) It is the best tasting brand we’ve found.

Click on photos to see a larger image.

Oyster Sauce Snap Peas
Oyster Sauce Snap Peas

A few years ago nearly all the Thai food manufacturers began adding preservatives and other additives to their products, which tasted and lasted just fine without them. Suddenly our Roasted Chili paste (nam prik pao) had food coloring and msg for no good reason – it was fine before. Our preferred oyster sauce suddenly had sodium benzoate. It was at that point that we decided to try the Dragonfly brand when we saw it in one of the local markets and it had no additives. The ingredients were (and are) oyster extract, sugar, soy sauce, salt and corn starch.

Initially we used the plain Dragonfly Oyster Sauce. Then we decided that we should try the Super Premium Flavored Oyster Sauce, though we had no intention of using it because it was more expensive. After we used it once we were sold – it’s the oyster sauce we recommend.

If you can’t use the Dragonfly brand, use the other Thai brand that’s readily available – Mae Krua. It, at least, doesn’t have msg. I don’t like the Chinese brands as well; they taste sweeter and less flavorful to me and most of them contain MSG.

Although we still see Dragonfly brand oyster sauce (particularly the premium, the super premium is harder to find), these days [May 2020] Kasma does not know which fish sauces will be readily available so she makes no recommendations.

Oyster Sauce Broccoli
Oyster Sauce Broccoli

This recipe comes from Kasma, of course. She used to teach a version of it in the second class of her beginning Thai cooking series as Stir-fried Broccoli with Thai Oyster Sauce (Broccoli Pad Nam Man Hoi). Nam man hoi is Thai for oyster sauce.

By the way, this blog is my interpretation of Kasma’s recipe. All credit goes to her. Any shortcomings in this blog are mine alone.

First I’ll give the basic, 5-ingredient recipe (a 6th is optional) followed by a brief slide-show of the dish being cooked. Continue scrolling down to see the recipe with variations (adding ground pork/chicken, shrimp or mushrooms) with its own slideshow.


Universal Vegetable Recipe – The Short Version

Ingredients

  • Oil or fat of your choice; we recommend duck fat or lard
  • Garlic, chopped, as much as you like
  • Vegetable of your choice, as much as you like, cut in bite-sized pieces
  • Oyster sauce, to taste (Dragonfly Brand Super Premium Flavored brand is best)
  • Fish sauce, to taste
  • Ground white pepper is optional

The Recipe

Heat wok until smoking hot, add oil/fat (let melt, if fat), add chopped garlic, stir briefly, add vegetable, cook for awhile, stirring occasionally, then add oyster sauce & fish sauce to taste; if necessary (to prevent burning) add 1 or 2 tablespoons of water; cook to desire degree of doneness. If desired, sprinkle in some ground white pepper at the end.

Notes

Oyster Sauce Cauliflower
Oyster Sauce Cauliflower

You can use Kasma’s recipe Stir-fried Asparagus, Oyster Mushrooms and Shrimp in Oyster SauceNaw-mai Farang Pad Nam Man Hoi to get an idea of how much of each ingredient to use; or look at Stir-fried Chive Flower Buds with Shrimp and Oyster Mushrooms (Pad Dawk Goochai Gkoong Hed Hoi Nahnglom).

I recommend duck fat for stir-frying. It adds a very delicious flavor. Chicken fat or goose fat would work. Also lard. If you can’t get those, I’d recommend peanut oil. One reason I like duck fat is because if I use too much, I really don’t mind because it tastes so good without tasting greasy. The polyunsaturated oils such as soy, canola, corn and sunflower will tend to make it taste very oily if you use too much.

Cooking time can vary greatly depending on the vegetable. For instance, an Asian green such as bok choy or tat choi will cook very quickly – within a couple of minutes. Cauliflower might take up to 10 minutes to cook, depending on the size of the pieces. With the longer cooking vegetables, plan on splashing in a little bit of water if the mixture starts to burn or stick to the wok; you can also cover the wok to help it cook faster. Depending on how much water you put in, you can also add a bit more oyster sauce and fish sauce, to taste (of course).

Oil/Fat: I think most people tend to use a a bit too little fat or oil; be aware of that tendency. If the vegetable starts to stick to the pan or burn in the cooking process, you can splash in a bit of water. Don’t be afraid of the animal fats. They are the best for stir-frying. Remember that all fats and oils are a combination of saturated, monounsaturated fat (the predominant fat in olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats. Lard, for instance, contains a bit more monounsaturated fat than saturated fat and a small amount of polyunsaturated fats. For frying, saturated fats are actually preferred: monounsaturated fats and (especially) polyunsaturated fats tend to oxidize under high heat, causing free radicals that are implicated in aging. (See the article Fatty Acid Peroxidation & Free Radicals (offsite, opens in new window) by Greg Watson.) For more information on fats and oils, see my previous blog on A “Healthy Diet”.

Oyster Sauce Vegetables
Made with Asian greens and mushrooms

Garlic: With garlic, try using a bit more than looks comfortable to you. Add an extra clove or two. I love lots of garlic. Give it a try.

Vegetable: What do you like? Broccoli, cauliflower, bok choi, snap peas, sugar peas, tat choi (an Asian vegetable), bok choi, Chinese broccoli (kanah in Thai), asparagus, green beans, chard, kale, collards, mustard greens, Napa cabbage . . .. Just about anything you like. Be aware that different vegetables have different cooking times. So maybe the first time, you overcook it a little. No problem, just remember what you’ve done: cook it less next time. With some longer-cooking vegetables you may need to add a little bit of water if the vegetables start to stick to the wok or burn – if that happens, just splash in some water. You can always add a bit more oyster sauce and make more of a sauce for the dish.

Oyster Sauce: How much you add will depend on a few things. Which brand are you using and how strong is it; whether you intend to eat “Thai-style” with a lot of rice, in which case you can make the dish more heavily flavored, and; personal taste preference. Taste as you go. Start out by adding a tablespoon or two; stir; taste. Add more if you’d like.

Fish Sauce: Has the same considerations as with oyster sauce, above. How salty do you like it?


Basic Recipe Slide Show

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Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

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Universal Vegetable Recipe – Variations

Snap Peas & Shrimp
Snap peas, with shrimp and mushrooms

In addition to the basic 5 ingredients you can also add:

  • Ground pork or chicken: Add right after the garlic and cook it pretty much all the way through before adding the vegetables.
  • Shrimp: Add right after the garlic, stir-fry 15-20 seconds, or until the shrimp starts to turn pink, then add the vegetables.
  • Mushrooms: When to add depends on type of mushroom and how well you like them cooked. If you want the mushroom to absorb more oil and garlic flavor, add right after the garlic or after the meat. Otherwise, add them after the vegetables are partially cooked or even at the same time as the vegetables. For longer cooking vegetables, add a bit later.

Recipe with Variations Slide Show

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Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

Note: This recipe uses an Asian green called “tat choi” with oyster mushrooms and ground pork.
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Play with the recipe!

I’ve already written a couple times on cooking and Thai recipes.

Oyster Sauce Vegetables
Asparagus, mushrooms & shrimp

In this case, I’d encourage you play around with quantities and cooking times. The first time you cook the recipe, you might want to use Kasma’s more complicated variation of the recipe on our website as a guide for quantities- Stir-fried Asparagus, Oyster Mushrooms and Shrimp in Oyster SauceNaw-mai Farang Pad Nam Man Hoi. On the other hand, you don’t need it and I encourage you to try what you think might work. Make the recipe your own.


Written by Michael Babcock, June 2011 & May 2020.

Categories
Markets Thai Culture

Nakhon Thong – Portrait of a Thai Community

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

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Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011.