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Snorkel Thailand Now, Before the Reefs are Gone!

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Global warming has taken its toll on the world’s tropical reefs, Thailand included. 2010 saw one of the most serious coral bleaching events in recorded history affecting most of the reefs in the tropical regions of the world, from the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific to the Caribbean.

I was in shock myself to discover some of my favorite reefs in Thailand’s waters seriously damaged in a matter of just a few months. In January of 2010, the group of avid snorkelers who traveled with me on a specially organized trip covering three marine national parks on Thailand’s Andaman seacoast had the greatest time and was amazed by the incredibly lively, colorful and abundant reefs protected within the marine parks: I have three Google+ albums of that trip with underwater photos:

Click on photos to see a larger image.

Healthy Reef

Healthy Koh Surin Reef, 2010

Damaged Reef

Damaged Koh Surin Reef, 2011

A few months later, after i had returned to California, I was worried when I read in the Bangkok Post online newspaper that marine scientists were very concerned about the rise in sea temperatures that was causing massive coral bleaching. (One article is Andaman Sea coral reefs hit by bleaching”.) Many were keeping their fingers crossed that the high sea temperatures wouldn’t be prolonged so that the coral could have a chance to recover.

What is Coral Bleaching?

Dead Coral

Fish over dead staghorn coral

The colors of corals come from a kind of microscopic algae that live inside them. The corals form a symbiotic relationship with the algae which nourish them with the essential nutrients they cannot produce without the algae’s ability to photosynthesize energy from sunlight.

This interrelationship is thrown out of balance when environmental stresses such as water temperatures much higher than normal, increased water acidity (another global warming phenomenon from increased CO2 being absorbed into the oceans) and pollution are elevated. Under extreme conditions, the algae begin to release substances that are toxic to the corals. In a desperate attempt to survive, the corals have little choice but to expel the algae. When the algae is expelled, the corals lose their color and become white. In other words, they become “bleached.”

Fish over Dead Coral

Parrotfish & dead coral

Bleached corals are still alive. If environmental conditions improve within a reasonable period of time, the algae can return to normal and become reabsorbed by the corals. However, if the environmental stresses are prolonged, the algae can die and when this happens, the corals, without their partner to provide them with the food they need, will eventually starve to death. Coral bleaching events, therefore, are closely monitored to ascertain the degree of recovery and destruction of the reefs.

The 2010 Coral Bleaching

Healthy Corals

Healthy corals

Massive coral bleaching was reported throughout the tropics in 2010, including the Caribbean, South Pacific, the entire Indian Ocean from east to west and the Coral Triangle — the world’s richest coral region spanning the area from the Philippines to Indonesia and the Malay peninsula. (The Coral Triangle covers just 1 percent of the earth’s surface, but is home to 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs, 76 percent of reef-building coral species and more than 35 percent of reef fish species.)

Scientists concur that the bleaching was caused by significantly higher than average sea temperatures from an El Nino cycle made worse by global warming which had already raised sea temperatures. Bleaching episodes occur when ocean temperatures rise above 85 to 87 degrees F. In 2010, ocean temperatures as high as 93 degrees were reported in the Indian Ocean and around the Coral Triangle.

Staghorn Coral

Healthy Staghorn Coral 2011

Scientists believe the devastating event in 2010 might be even more severe than the last massive bleaching during the 1998 El Nino, which destroyed more than 16 percent of the earth’s reefs, most of them in tropical regions. Some of the reefs damaged by the last event were just beginning to show some recovery when this recent bleaching put them back in jeopardy. It usually takes a decade or more for a damaged reef to make some measure of recovery if conditions return to normal and stay ideal for the corals. However, with no signs of global warming slowing down and short of any concerted international effort to drastically reduce CO2 emissions any time soon, tropical reefs are endangered and, according to some scientists, it’s likely they might become extinct within the next two decades.

Many Dive Sites Closed by January 2011

Partially Damaged Coral

Partially damaged coral

By January of this year, ministries in the Thai government (as well as in several other neighboring countries) announced the temporary closure of a long string of the country’s most precious dive sites in hopes of rehabilitating the reefs. It became apparent that the coral bleaching event during the hottest months of the year from April to June 2010 had led to the widespread demise of some of Thailand’s most beautiful and highly prized reefs. My heart sank as one of my greatest joys of coming home to Thailand every year is to immerse myself in the warm waters of the seacoast and in awe of nature’s beauty beneath the surface. I just had to see for myself how bad the situation really was.

My husband Michael and I took a trip down to the Andaman seacoast in late January and checked out the reefs in our favorite marine national park — Mu Koh Surin Marine National Park, followed by a few days on the islands off the Krabi coastline. That trip showed us in no uncertain terms the destructive face of the specter of global warming. Upon my return to the States in March, I wrote an email reporting what we saw to a few of the people who had expressed interest in joining my next southern Thailand trip (in Jan/Feb 2012) to relive their treasured experience of Thailand’s southern reefs.

An Excerpt of the Email to Prospective Southern Thailand Trip Members

Pre Bleaching Scene

Pre bleaching scene

. . . Thailand did not escape the 2010 global coral bleaching episode, but although a considerable amount of damage had been done to our favorite reefs, from Koh Surin to Krabi to Tarutao, we are planning to go ahead with our southern trip scheduled for next January/February. From our point of view, at our age, we most likely cannot expect to see a perfectly healthy reef again in our lifetime as the recovery process is slow and sea conditions cannot be expected to remain ideal for the reefs with global warming still uncontrolled. We fear that this recent global coral bleaching disaster may mark the beginning of the end of tropical coral reefs, as some scientists believe.

We, therefore, would want to take every opportunity to go snorkeling before the tropical reef system is further damaged in the next major El Nino cycle. In many badly damaged reefs in Thailand, conservationists are beginning to observe small signs of recovery since the bleaching occurred last April and May, and have pushed for measures to reduce other sources of environmental stress on the surviving corals to improve their chances of long-term survival and ability to reseed the reefs.

Soft Corals

Soft corals are ok, 2011}

Michael and I took a week’s trip recently to check out the reefs on Koh Surin National Park and around the Krabi area. We had wanted to check out our favorite spots at Phi Phi but a major storm system moved in that week and thwarted our plans. (It is presently the La Nina part of the cycle marked by stormy seas.) Instead we ended up on Koh Poda and snorkeled the nearby islands. The longtail boat driver we hired took us to a reef we hadn’t snorkeled for some fifteen years. We were heartened to see new coral growth after the overused reef was closed off more than a decade ago to tourists.

Trip A had a day trip to Phi Phi in December but on the day we went, we were able to snorkel only one site before the seas turned too rough to swim. But that hour snorkeling Koh Yoong was nothing short of magical as the tide was perfect and there were tons of fish. I was not yet fully aware of the extent of the coral bleaching at that time and was too distracted by the abundance of fish to pay much attention to the condition of the corals. In fact, I even snapped some photos of beautiful corals apparently unaffected by the bleaching event.

Fish & Coral

Fish and damaged coral

We were at Koh Surin National Park for three days. Although we were saddened to see large expanses of dead coral, we had a wonderful time nonetheless snorkeling the different sites. There were plenty of colorful fishes to keep us entertained and we honestly hadn’t seen as many enormous schools of different kinds of fishes since the tsunami year. As we do every year, we saw varieties of fish we’d never seen before. The damaged reefs continue to provide structure, form and color as a backdrop and as homes and breeding grounds to the reef fishes. The seaweed and algae that have begun to cover the dead corals are a source of abundant food for the herbivores, including the turtles. We saw lots of reef sharks which meant there’s still plenty of food for the larger predators as well. The occasional sighting of swaths of living coral and the brilliant colors of tiny new coral growth made me smile with excitement as I photo-documented what I saw. There are some varieties of coral more resistant to bleaching than others, so there’s still plenty of color on the reefs.

Although some of our favorite reefs are temporarily closed to allow them to recover more quickly (and we agree with the park’s decision), I was glad to get to see reefs we had overlooked before. In certain ways, they are every bit as interesting.

Despite the bleaching, we still find the snorkeling in Thailand to be much better than in Hawaii (we went snorkeling in Hawaii last spring). We have uploaded an album of underwater pictures taken this season onto our Google+ web gallery and invite you to view them at:

Some Signs of Recovery

Regenerating Coral

New baby staghorn growth

I am a little more hopeful after hearing a few people I know on Koh Surin National Park report recently that there are ample signs of new coral growth in several locations around the islands. At the same time, I hear that another El Nino is coming in a few years. With all the uncertainly surrounding the survival of the tropical reefs, all I can say is: I am going to put on my snorkeling mask and go snorkeling as often as I can before the reefs forever disappear. And unless we all do something to slow, if not stop, global warming, it will be sooner than later.

One option for getting some great snorkeling in Thailand is Kasma’s trip to Southern Thailand leaving in mid-January:

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2011.

In Search of the Best Sour Fish (Pla Som)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Pla som, or sour fish, is one of my very favorite foods from the northeastern Isan region, which is also known for its sour sausages. It’s made in a similar way as the Isan sour sausages, using fermented rice as the souring agent. I’m partial to fish and a perfectly fermented and crispy-fried sour fish is so delicious it’s hard to stop eating it! The problem is: perfection is hard to find, even in its home territory.

Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

Ready-to-eat sour food

My first encounter with pla som was some fifteen years ago in the then small riverside town of Nakhon Phanom in the northeastern corner of Isan. It was at a small rice shop near the hotel I spent the night. Hungry and looking for a good place for breakfast, I walked down one of the streets and noticed a busy rice shop crowded with customers – a good sign! Among the assortment of ready-made dishes in front of the shop was a yummy-looking fried fish topped with crispy fried garlic, fried dried chillies, sliced shallots and cut Thai chillies. I soon discovered it wasn’t any ordinary fried fish. It had a very unusual and delicious sour flavor definitely not from lime juice, tamarind, vinegar or any other sour condiment. That introduction to pla som was truly memorable and I fell deeply in love with this Isan food.

(Click images to see larger version.)

In those days, Isan food hadn’t yet become popular in the main heartland of the country’s central region. It was impossible to find it in any eatery or restaurant in the capital, even in the few so-called Isan restaurants just opening in the city. But memories of that first encounter remained vivid in my mind and on my tongue. I could only dream of another trip to Isan to savor the delicacy.

So-so Fried Sour Fish

Sour fish at Si Saket

Fast forward half a dozen years. Michael and I took a trip to Isan with our friend and adopted brother Sun, who drives for my Thailand tours. I was showing Michael around to the places I’d been and we were exploring new places as possibilities for organizing a future tour. I hadn’t offered an Isan trip for years as traveling in the vast Isan region, Thailand’s largest, during the last two decades of the last century could be tedious and standard tourist accommodations lacking in many of the fascinating areas worth visiting. With Isan now a popular destination among domestic Thai tourists and Isan food becoming an “in” cuisine nationwide, it was a perfect opportunity to check out the new infrastructure, as well as the lively markets and local eateries I’d been reading about in Thai travel magazines.

Sour Fish in Surin

Sour fish dish in Surin

We had just arrived in Nong Khai on the Mekong River. It was late in the day and after checking into a family-run guest house near the river, we went for a walk along the alley by the waterfront, hoping to find a good restaurant with views of the river for dinner. My eye caught a signboard with the words pla som and immediately I insisted that we have dinner there.

I ordered the pla som while Michael and Sun chose a couple of other dishes. Soon, both of them understood why I was so excited about eating there. The fish was very quickly gone before the other dishes received our attention. The next evening, after a full day of exploration, Sun was the one to adamantly insist that we return to the same place for dinner and, this time, forget about other dishes and just order three plates of pla som, one for the each of us!

Sour Fish in Ubon

Sour fish in Ubon market

For the rest of that trip, as we journeyed along the Mekong east- and southward to the border province of Ubon and then cut westward to Surin and Buriram before heading back to Bangkok, we kept an eye out for pla som but, unfortunately, did not find any place with as good a pla som as we had in Nong Khai. Some were actually rather disappointing. Most of the pla som we saw were uncooked, sold in open tubs in the fresh marketplaces and made with whole fish, as it’s traditionally done, particularly small silver barbs (pla tapian) that do have a lot of small bones. The pla som we had in Nong Khai was made with chunks of a large fish with plenty of moist meat and very little bones.

Kamnan Jun Sour Fish

Sour fish in bulk at Don Wai

Michael and I love to visit open-air fresh markets in Thailand and Sun often drives us to marketplaces far and near. We soon begin to notice raw pla som being sold in some of the larger gourmet fresh markets in or near Bangkok, like Aw Taw Kaw (Or Tor Kor) and Don Wai, either already packaged in plastic bags or sold bulk in big piles. The pla som made by Kamnan Jun sold in Don Wai market is particularly good. It’s made with a fish called pla nuanchan in large mostly filleted chunks with skin still on. The skin is important as it adds a good texture to the fish when it is crispy-fried.

The first time I saw pla som at Don Wai, I bought two large bags and fried all the pieces up the next morning for breakfast. Sun, whose home is in Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, planned to breakfast with us before making his long drive home. He was so delighted to have so many pieces of pla som to feast on. The fish was crispier and even more delicious than he remembered having in Nong Khai. He was convinced that I must have a secret way of frying the fish that enhanced the crispiness and flavor. He devoured with great pleasure as much as he could but there were so many pieces we couldn’t possibly finish the two big plates. So he decided he would wait till afternoon to begin his long drive, so that he could have lunch and finish off the rest!

Sour Fish at Don Wai

Don Wai sour fish vendor

Sour Fish, Ready to Cook

Sour fish at Don Wai

Sour Fish Dish

Vientiane Kitchen's fried sour fish

Pla som has become much better known among Thais all over the country as Isan food continues to soar in popularity the past decade. As migrant workers from Isan find their way around the country, I’m seeing raw, ready-for-cooking pla som in markets far and wide, even in the southern region. A number of Isan restaurants in Bangkok now have it on their menus but so far nothing near as good as the best pla som I’ve had in Isan or that I’ve fried myself from fish bought at Don Wai and Aw Taw Kaw. Vientiane Kitchen on Sukhumvit 36 serves an acceptable one after the restaurant remodeled recently and put in a new menu (and perhaps new cooks, too), but it lacks the crispiness that has become a trademark of delicious fried pla som.

I can even find ready-to-cook pla som in my local Cambodian market in Oakland (see my blog on Sontepheap Market), in packages in the freezer imported from Thailand and labeled in Thai as pla som Mae Jinda. The ingredients are shown in English though, listing fish, garlic, rice and salt. To preserve the fish better for its long journey here, it is made saltier than what’s available in Bangkok’s markets and needs to be eaten with plenty of rice. Delicious though it is!

Frozen Sour Fish

"Mae Jinda" sour fish at Sontepheap

Mae Jinda Sour fish

Sour fish out of package

Tilapia for Sour Fish

Very fresh tilapia for making sour fish

I’ve also taken to making my own pla som and teach it in one of my advanced classes. (See Menus for Advanced Set F.) Definitely a fish with skin still on makes the best pla som. I’ve tried making it with red snapper, catfish, basa (swai) and tilapia. The best result so far is with very fresh tilapia that I buy live from the tanks in Asian fish markets, that I then fillet to remove only the center skeleton, head and tail, but leaving the skin on. In the Bay Area it takes about a week to sour the fish. Rubbed with a coating of tapioca flour before frying, it delivers a most satisfying combination of crispiness and natural sour flavor to rival the best I’ve had in Isan’s restaurants.

Making Sour Fish

Preparing the tilapia

Sour Fish, Ready to Fry

Week-old soured tilapia

Sour Fish Dish

Sour fish at Bao Pradit, Mukdahan

My most recent trip to Isan was in December 2009 with a group of twelve on a special northeastern Thailand tour. (On Picasa, see Kasma’s Northeastern Trip Photos, Part 2.) Whenever and wherever I saw pla som on a menu, I would order it. Several in my group loved it, but like me, they soon discovered that quality and taste could vary substantially. By far the best we had was at a truly native Isan restaurant in Mukdahan, called Bao Pradit. It’s south of town along the river, serving really hardcore Isan food made with local ingredients not found in other regions. With all the wonderful choices and fiery hot range of flavor combinations, Sun asked that I order for him his own plate of pla som and that’s the only thing he ate that night with a heavenly grin on his face. I would have to say it really was the best of the best pla som I’d ever had.

This fall, I’m offering another special 21-day trip to Isan and I’m already dreaming about a fabulous dinner in Mukdahan!”

More Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

More ready-to-eat sour fish

Sour Fish, To Go

Sour fish, to go

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2011.

A Hidden Treasure at Pha Taem National Park

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

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

This December I have organized yet another special Northeast tour. As usual, it has been planned around the silk fair in Khon Kaen, after which we will travel northward to the Mekong River and follow it eastward and southward to Khong Jiam in Ubon Ratchathani province. With a wet monsoon year expected, I hope to visit a glorious wildflower field complete with all the makings of paradise. I am hoping, too, that if we 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 is an example of the unplanned experiences that can happen on Kasma’s trips; she’s always open to finding something new and delightful. [note by Kasma’s husband, Michael]

Pha Taem National Park Slide Show

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

Sao Chailiang Rock Formation
Sao Chailiang Rock Formation
Mekong River & Laos
View of Phe Taem clif
Pha Taem Cliff 2
Cliff Painting 1
Cliff Painting 2
Cliff Painting 3
Pha Taem Meadowland
Wildflower Field 1
Wildflower Field 2
Various Wildflowers
Two Wildflowers
Another Wildflower Field
A Weeping Wildflower Meadow
Sundew Flowers
Sundew Wildflowers
Another Sundew
Sundew Close-up
Nepenthes Pitcher Plant
Reflecting Pool
Mekong River Sunset

Sao Chailiang Rock Formation, Pha Taem National Park

Another Sao Chailiang Rock Formation at Pha Taem National Park

View of Mekong River & Laos from the top of Pha Taem cliff

Looking up the cliff of Pha Taem from the petroglyph trail below

The trail on the bottom of the cliff to view the cliff paintings

A gigantic cliff painting of a swimming elephant with a fish

Cliff paintings of fish, fish traps, human figures and handprints

Cliff paintings of Mekong River giant catfish, human figures, more

Golden plateau-top meadowland near Soi Sawan waterfall

A boggy wildflower field on a rocky plateau

Weeping rocks water the wildflowers

Deep purple-blue, yellow and white wildflowers and a red sundew on the bottom left

The deep purple-blue dusita, yellow soi suwanna and white star flowers

A multi-colored boggy wildflower field

A weeping wildflower meadow; red sundews on the bottom left

Two sundews among white wildflowers

A family of yellow-flowered sundews in a rocky crevice

A lavender-flowered sundew in wildflower field #4, Pha Taem National Park

A close-up of a sundew with small insects trapped by its sticky secretion

A nepenthes pitcher plant

A reflecting pool on the rocky plateau by the wildflower meadow

The mesa-like plateaus of Pha Taem National Park

Sunset on the Mekong River in Khong Jiam

Sao Chailiang Rock Formation 1 thumbnail
Sao Chailiang Rock Formation 2 thumbnail
Mekong River & Laos thumbnail
View of Phe Taem cliff thumbnail
Pha Taem Cliff 2 thumbnail
Cliff Painting 1 thumbnail
Cliff Painting 2 thumbnail
Cliff Painting 3 thumbnail
Pha Taem Meadowland thumbnail
Wildflower Field 1 thumbnail
Wildflower Field 2 thumbnail
Various Wildflowers thumbnail
Two Wildflowers thumbnail
Another Wildflower Field thumbnail
A Weeping Wildflower Meadow thumbnail
Sundew Flowers thumbnail
Sundew Wildflowers thumbnail
Another Sundew thumbnail
Sundew Close-up thumbnail
Nepenthes Pitcher Plant thumbnail
Reflecting Pool thumbnail
Plateaus thumbnail
Mekong River Sunset thumbnail

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 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
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.

Cha-Om – A Delicious and Nutritious Tropical Acacia

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, May 13th, 2011

Cha-om, a tropical member of the acacia family (Acacia pennata) native to mainland Southeast Asia, is a well-loved herby vegetable among Thais, Cambodians and Laotians. The parts that are eaten are the ferny young leaf shoots and tender tips before the stems turn tough and thorny. It has a particular fragrance that may seem unpleasant at first to the unaccustomed, but when it’s cooked up, it’s so tasty that most people can’t stop eating it and the aroma is just part of the package and soon becomes quite likable. This happens a lot whenever cha-om is cooked up in my cooking classes.

Click on an image to see a larger version.

There’s a slide show with all images in this
post at the very bottom (scroll down).

Fresh Cha-Om

Fresh cha-om from Mithapheap

More Fresh Cha-Om

Prickly thorns on lower stepms

De-stemmed Cha-om

De-stemmed, ready to cook

Cha-om is a small shrub with prickly thorns on its branches and stems, though I hear breeders have come up with a thornless variety I have yet to personally come across. In tropical Southeast Asia, it is a fast-growing shrub that puts out new shoots year-round and most robustly during the rainy season. People in some regions, particularly the North, prefer to eat cha-om in the dry season since cha-om grown during the monsoon season tends to develop a tartness and has a much stronger smell. Growers prune the shrubs regularly to harvest the young shoots, wearing long gloves to protect themselves from the nasty thorns. A mature plant can put forth enough shoots for cutting every three days or so. In the more temperate climate of northern California, growth is less profuse and the plants need protection from the cold. They stop producing new shoots when temperatures dip in late fall and stay semi-dormant through the winter.

Cha-om Egg Squares

Cha-om egg squares

The most common way cha-om is cooked is with beaten eggs, like in an omelette, which is then cut into squares or rectangles to serve with pungent nahm prik (hot chilli sauces, usually with fermented shrimp paste – nahm prik kapi in Thai) and fried fish (usually Asian mackerel, or pla too).(See Kasma’s recipe, Pan-Fried Mackerel and Assorted Vegetables with Hot-and-Pungent Fermented Shrimp Dipping Sauce – Nam Prik Pla Too.)

Nam prik pla too

Nam prik pla too

Thai Dipping Sauce

Nam prik with cha-om egg pieces

Cha-om Egg Rounds

Cha-om egg rounds

Cha-om Omelette

Cha-om omelette

Cha-om egg squares are also frequently cooked in a spicy sour tamarind curry with shrimp (kaeng som). One of my favorite restaurants, Mallika, located in the outskirts of Bangkok, makes a fabulous crispy fried cha-om in a ferny nest, topped with a hot-and-sour sauce containing squid, shrimp and chopped pork (yam cha-om gkrawb). It’s one of the first dishes people in my Thailand travel groups get to savor as I usually take them to Mallika for lunch right after picking them up from the airport. Most fall for cha-om and look forward to eating more of it in other dishes through the trip.

Cha-om in Curry

Cha-om egg squares in curry

Dish with Cha-om

Crisp-fried cha-om

Stir-fried Cha-om

Stir-fried cha-om with egg

Because of its fairly assertive flavor and higher price, cha-om is usually not stir-fried by itself like other leafy green vegetables, but is instead used much like an herb to flavor other things cooked with it. For these reasons, it is sold in small bundles in markets across Thailand. Eggs go especially well with cha-om and in my classes, we make a delicious stir-fried cha-om with eggs and bean thread noodles.

Cha-om for Sale

Cha-om at Hua Hin market

Cha-om Bundled for Sale

Cha-om at Krabi market

Cha-om for Sale

Cha-om at Mithapheap

Starting last spring, we’ve been lucky to be able to get cha-om fresh in the Bay Area during the warmer months beginning in April until the weather turns cold in the fall. Being a tropical acacia, cha-om needs warmth to enable it to put forth new shoots. However, there’s only one store I know of that carries the fresh shoots and that’s Mithapheap, a Cambodian market on International Boulevard in Oakland. [Update, May, 2014: Lao Jaleune Market, formerly Heng Fath Market, on 23rd Street in Richmond, CA also carries it on occasion.] Last summer the store even had cha-om starter plants for sale. But the supply is very limited and disappears quickly in spite of its price (retails for around $15 a pound).


Cha-om Plants

Cha-om plants at Mithapheap

Sam, who owns Mithapheap, tries to carry as many of the tropical herbs and vegetables that his Southeast Asian clientele craves and misses after immigrating to this country. He’s made an arrangement with farmers he knows in Modesto to grow many of these exotic produce. Among them is cha-om. During the growing season, Sam drives down to the farm two to three times monthly, usually late in the week (often Thursdays) and the produce would be available over the weekend. Cha-om is usually gone within a few days. Since both Michael and I are very fond of cha-om, as are many of my students who’ve been introduced to it, Sam would call or email me whenever he’s been to the farm and brought back cha-om. As soon as I receive the message, I would dash down to the store to pick up some before it disappears and then shoot off a message to my students. Sam is the main fresh cha-om supplier in the Bay Area and many of his big Southeast Asian customers, including some restaurant owners, often place special orders with him and are among the people he would contact whenever he brings cha-om back from the farm.


Frozen Cha-om

Frozen cha-om at Mithapheap

Short of being able to get cha-om fresh, it is available for a lower price in 4-oz. packages imported from Thailand in the freezers of several East Bay stores (haven’t checked the Cambodian markets in San Francisco which most likely would have it). Mithapheap sometimes has frozen packages of de-stemmed leaves which make it easier to use and you get more for the same weight. But most frequently, the frozen packages contain cha-om still on the stems. The Laos International Market two blocks further down the same street also regularly carries frozen cha-om and a third store in the same vicinity to check is Thien Loi Hoa on East 12th Street at 12th Avenue.


Frozen Cha-om

Frozen Cha-om at Lao Market

Frozen Cha-om

Frozen Cha-om at Thien Loi Hoa

Not only is it delcious, cha-om is a nutritious vegetable, high in vitamin C and beta-carotenes. It is good for the heart and is known to be an anti-cancer agent. There’s nothing like a natural food that tastes great and, at the same time, is good for you!

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.

Kasma’s Cha-om Photo Slide Show

Fresh Cha-Om
More Fresh Cha-Om
De-stemmed Cha-om
Cha-om Egg Squares
Nam prik plah too
Thai Dipping Sauce
Cha-om Egg Rounds
Cha-om Omelette
Cha-om in Curry
Dish with Cha-om
Cha-om for Sale
Cha-om Bundled for Sale
Stir-fried Cha-om
Cha-om for Sale
Cha-om Plants
Frozen Cha-om
Frozen Cha-om
Frozen Cha-om

Fresh cha-om from Sontepheap market in Oakland.

Notice the prickly thorns on the lower part of the stems.

De-stemmed cha-om leaf shoots and tips ready for cooking.

Cha-om egg squares to accompany nam prik and fried fish in the next picture.

Nam prik plah too at Nong Beun in Inburi.

Nam prik with cha-om egg pieces at Mae Sa Valley Resort.

Cha-om egg rounds at Or Tor Kor (Aw Taw Kaw) market.

Cha-om omelette and fried mackerel at a rice shop in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Sour tamarind curry with cha-om egg squares at Chula in Sukhothai.

Crisp-fried cha-om with hot-and-sour sauce, Mallika.

Cha-om sold in small bundles at Hua Hin market.

Cha-om bundled with banana leaf in Krabi market.

Stir-fried cha-om with eggs and bean threads.

4- to 6-oz. packages of fresh cha-om, Sontepheap Market.

Cha-om plants for sale at Sontepheap.

4-oz. frozen packages of de-stemmed cha-om at Sontepheap.

4-oz. frozen packages at Laos International Market.

4-oz. frozen packages at Thien Loi Hoa.

Fresh Cha-Om thumbnail
More Fresh Cha-Om thumbnail
De-stemmed Cha-om thumbnail
Cha-om Egg Squares thumbnail
Nam Prik Plah Too thumbnail
Thai Dipping Sauce thumbnail
Cha-om Egg Rounds thumbnail
Cha-om Omelette thumbnail
Cha-om in Curry thumbnail
Dish with Cha-om thumbnail
Cha-om for Sale thumbnail
Cha-om Bundled for Sale thumbnail
Stir-fried Cha-om  thumbnail
Cha-om for Sale thumbnail
Cha-om Plants thumbnail
Frozen Cha-om thumbnail
Frozen Cha-om thumbnail
Frozen Cha-om 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


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.


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.