Friday, August 12, 2011

Border Crossing

In Chiang Mai, Ethan and I took a Thai cooking class with a wonderful woman named Mae. We learned to make green and red curry paste, cashew chicken (the best dish of them all, we thought), coconut chicken soup with lemongrass, spring rolls and mango sticky rice. Mae was fun and would shout at us as we peered into our woks. "Chicken NOW!" she screamed. "Now, move, fast, timing! Chicken NOW!" Here is a recipe from Mae's cook book:

Stir-fried cashew chicken:

50 g boneless chicken breast, or tofu
1 tbsp cashew nuts, roasted
30 g baby corn
30 g carrot
30 g large onion
30 ear mushroom, thickly sliced
10 g spring onions, cut 3 cm in length
1 bell chili pepper or red chili pepper, diced
1 tbsp chopped garlic
1 and 1/2 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce (buy at an Asian market)
1/4 cup water

fry garlic until fragrant, then add chicken (chicken NOW)
add cashew nuts
baby corn, carrot, large onion, ear mushroom, red pepper and stir well
add water \ and season with sugar, oyster sauce, fish sauce and stir
add spring onions
turn off heat. Serve on white or brown rice!

After exploring the remarkable city of Pai (pronounced "bye"). In Pai, we spent our days chasing waterfalls with an Israeli couple that we meet in Ton Sai (Guy likes to jump from high ledges and Shaket loves mango shakes, they were wonderful company). Pai is a stunningly beautiful town in a valley surrounded by mountains. It's a hippie-Thai town filled with Asheville, maybe? Then, we crossed the Mekong river by boat at Chiang Khong, a sleepy little town on the northern border.

Houayxai, we traveled to Luang Akah women selling their handicrafts: small beaded bracelets and seed necklaces. They covered the table with their works. These Akah women, half a foot shorter than me, are so small and so amazingly persistent. I asked them to sit and to stop hovering over me. They sat, moved in close and said, "Katcha!" "What?" I asked. "Katcha!" The woman next to me smiled, exposing a mouth full of cavities. She began rubbing her hands together saying, "Chi-chi-chi," and then pinched her forefinger and thumb together, taking in a long, slow breath. "Smoke?" Katcha! She smiled, laughing at my cluelessness, and nodding. She offered me a small, stamp-sized brick of opium, carefully hidden beneath a bracelet. "No, no, Kap Chai," I said. "No, no." ...I still ended up with four bracelets...

We rented a motorbike the next day and explored the farmland. Hill-tribe villages - over a dozen different ethnic groups in all - make up the majority of the population in the north of Loa. We drove through a Lanten village and spotted a woman stirring a pot of black-indigo dye, used for their traditional clothing. The Lanten are called "Lua Houay," "stream Lao," because they live by rivers. Of course, we found the village by driving to a nearby waterfall. We passed an Akah village and waved at the children that ran after us, smiling and shouting "Saba di!"

Now we are in Muang Sing, a small town engulfed by mountains near the Chinese border. As soon as we stepped into town two older Akah women came bounding towards us, offering bracelets and "Katcha, Katcha!" It seems the elder tribal women are the country's drug dealers. They are grabby, touchy and try to pull me to the side, winking, tugging at my sleeves, saying, Katcha!

Muang Sing is cradled by mountains, mist, rice fields, and protected forests - home to hundreds of small, remote villages. It's raining now, as it does everyday at dusk, and I am watching dragonflies dance over the rice paddies. A cloud of little-black helicopters zig-zagging about. It's peaceful here. So still it seems time does not exist at all. We have only been in Lao for three days, but I love this country already. I love the kind, gentle faces around us. I love the naked children who splash each other with mud. I love the ducks who stop the buses, the water buffalo lingering beside rice paddies, the old ladies who pull on me and grin, the slowness of life in these cloud-clutched mountains.

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