Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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Pad around Thailand

Travellers get a chance to monkey with elephants and heat up the kitchen in lush Chiang Mai

A friend of mine who's a professional photographer once shared a travel tip with me. He said that when he's so overwhelmed by all the sights around him that he doesn't know what to shoot, he focuses on a particular colour as a theme. In India, he chose red. In Thailand, he chose yellow.

Arriving in Bangkok on a Monday, my first thought was that he'd made an obvious choice. From the moment I left the airport, I began to see people in yellow clothes all over the bustling capital city: yellow T-shirts darting through traffic, yellow T-shirts in human-propelled put-puts, yellow T-shirts stopping to buy mangosteens and pomelos from fruit vendors. Surely this had to be more than the latest fashion trend?

The explanation was indeed more deep-rooted than that. In Thailand, each day of the week is associated with a colour. Since the King was born on a Monday, the day's traditional colour -- yellow -- has become the royal colour. The Thai people are very loyal to their monarch. During my visit, His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej was celebrating a record 60 years on the throne, and many of his 62 million subjects were showing their respect by dressing in his honour.

"You may talk about anything. Talk about the government. Talk about the Thai people. But don't talk about the Royal Family. The King is like another father for us here," a local informed me, his unflappable smile fading for just an instant.

The colour yellow, and the King's legacy, wound up following me throughout my trip through this Southeast Asian nation. I found flecks of it in the jasmine necklaces I was given at the airport. There was the gold of the curvy spire of the temple. And it was also the colour of the parasol I picked up for a stroll through the sticky-rice paddies that stretched out behind my villa in Chiang Mai, my real destination on this journey -- although by the time I got there, the defining hue was leaning decidedly more towards green, thanks to the stunningly lush landscape.


A Million Rice Fields
In a country where 20C is the average winter temperature, the northern province of Chiang Mai attracts its share of Thai tourists, along with backpackers and leisure travellers from further afield. With mountain ranges rolling down from the Himalayas, fertile valleys and jungle air all around, its attractions are myriad -- from teak tree forests to renowned cooking schools to artisan markets supplied by local hill folk.

Bordering Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos, Chiang Mai was once a separate country known as Lanna, which roughly translates as the kingdom of a million rice fields. Although the area has industrialized and its main city of the same name on the banks of the Ping River has recently grown rapidly, the vibrant sweep of the paddies is never far from sight. Some cultivators still use water buffalo to work the fields, while others put the temperate climate and fertile soil to use in growing strawberries, vegetables, cherries, apples, ferns and countless varieties of flowers.

Not all that long ago, this part of Thailand told a different story. In the late 1960s, it was responsible for producing 150 tonnes of opium each year. The consequences on an environmentally sensitive area were worrying: watershed forests were slashed and burned to make way for planting, and the drug trade brought with it other risks too: addiction, perilous public safety and problematic security at the borders. For many of the area's residents, there was little choice but to engage in the trade or leave in search of work somewhere else in the country.

The King himself has been instrumental in writing a happier chapter. Royal Project research was conducted on other cash crops that could provide a viable living to citizens. Today, almost 300 highland villages benefit from the program, and the medical, educational and food bank services that come with it. The initiative was also a story of international cooperation: Japan donated apricot trees, New Zealand sent along the kiwi and North America shared peaches and plums.

Products are marketed under the brand name Doi Kham, which in Northern dialect means Golden Mountain, so that consumers can recognize the source they are supporting. The result is an ecotourism opportunity for visitors, economic benefits for residents and a hopeful mood for all.

At the Mae Sapok research station, I toured the gardens and the greenhouse before settling down on a wooden platform for an al fresco lunch. The highlight was fish caught from the river that morning, steamed with basil, lime leaves and lemongrass. Another highlight was the manager of the tiny eatery, who appeared again and again with baskets of delicious edibles, before picking up his guitar and belting out country songs in a twangy voice. What Willie Nelson would think of the performance, I do not know, but I suspect he'd find it as amusing as I did.


Recipe for Finesse
It's not surprising, with these ingredients at hand, that Chiang Mai is a centre for cuisine; there must be two dozen cooking schools in the area. Kaffir lime leaves, chilies, galangal, lemongrass, cilantro, shallots, garlic -- what's not to love? I was looking forward to a hands-on lesson of my own.

Wending my way down the path to Kaohom Cooking School, I couldn't help wishing that my kitchen at home could be located in this setting, surrounded by landscaped gardens, the twitter of birds and an outdoor table draped in a vibrant cloth.

Owner Kanchana Ubolsootvanich, who goes by the considerably easier name of Khun Tim, runs the well-regarded Wan La Moon Restaurant in town. She greeted her students in an outdoor cooking area with separate grills for each of us. "We call them gas stations!" she joked.

A tiny powerhouse, she steered us through the finer points of the classic noodle-based pad thai while dispensing words of wisdom. "In Thai tradition, men listen to how fast the pestle and mortar are being used," she told us while resolutely mashing garlic, coriander root and white pepper. "Too slow, you're lazy. If it's fast, they'll marry you!"

Thai cooking can be labour intensive. It was the first occasion when I've taken the time to roast raw peanuts, tossing them in a large wok until the flavours were teased out and sealed in by the heat.

Presentation can also be demanding, and Kaohom revealed some of the details that make the finished dish shine. Chili peppers were cut into flowers, sliced from the tip, seeds and membrane removed, then placed in water so that they could open like petals. Carrots were crafted into little orange blossoms, under a tiny and lethal knife.

Some culinary workers study vegetable carving for years at a nearby school to become masters of the craft, so we satisfied ourselves by topping our first-time attempts with those sculpted for us. My classmates and I were soon seated in the garden, reviewing our efforts and exchanging compliments.

The fried bread with shrimp spread, while not my favourite, turned out to be much more delicious than it looked in preparation. The deep-fried sea bass was crisp on the outside and moist on the inside, even more exquisite with an accompanying green mango salad. And for dessert, sticky rice coconut cream was simply heavenly.


Tree Trunks And Elephant Trunks
If there are two elements that most define the Thai design esthetic, they would be teak trees and elephants. The first provided the heavy wood for construction and crafts, the second the motif so pervasive in carvings and prints.

Economically, they're linked as well. Elephants were historically used in the teak industry, as the best means to remove the valuable wood from areas where no vehicles could pass. They would drag their loads through the forest, sometimes to be injured and abused along the way. The elephant is a symbol of protection in Thailand, but as a result of industry practices. their numbers have decreased at an alarming rate, and it's the animals that are in need of protection now.

Patara Elephant Farm, about an hour outside of Chiang Mai, is part breeding ground, part retirement facility for domestic Asian elephants, which are smaller than the African variety, but certainly no sugar puffs. Under the care of Theerapat Trungprakan, who could win the award for world's gentlest human being, they seem relatively content, while reserving the right to completely ignore instructions from time to time.

Wading into the river for a daily wash, we gently scrubbed their backs as they regarded us with intelligent eyes. I say gently because despite the sturdy appearance of the wrinkled grey skin speckled with hairs, pachyderm skin is delicate. Actually, their whole systems are delicate, they can only lie down for 20 minutes at a time as their internal organs can't withstand the weight for any longer than that.

If the elephants captured my attention, so did the hairstyles of the Patara's elephant drivers, called mahouts, who looked like a marooned Beatles cover band from the early 1960s. The image added another dimension to a wild ride, as we crashed through the overgrowth, well off the beaten track, ducking and holding on for lives as our beast got to just the right tree to devour. The mahouts, often sitting right on the animals' foreheads, just let it happen -- and once my heart stopped pounding, I appreciated their give-and-take approach.

Back at the disembarking station, it was banana handout time for the elephants -- another glimpse of yellow for me and a tasty treat for them. Pause too long and trunks with thumb-like appendages encouraged us to hasten the distribution. I respectfully stepped up the pace -- in a country that had offered me so much, it was a pleasure to give a little something back.

 

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