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One of the most intriguing observations we’ve had while traveling in Asia is the plethora of skin products on the market designed to make the user whiter. While in the West we’re spending millions of dollars to make our skin darker (from tanning salons to self tanners), in the East they’re spending a corresponding amount to go lighter.

I spent the few days we had on the Thai island Koh Phagnan working to get my tan on.

I scour the pharmacies for anti-wrinkle cream by my favorite brands including Olay, but all I can find are whitening products. They even have products for men.

Where's the anti-wrinkle cream?

The TV commercials hawking these creams are an additional source of amusement with the women in them gazing approvingly in the mirror after a graphic explains this whitening lotion just made them 2 shades lighter.

Will it ever be possible to abandon our world-wide obsession with skin color? Our preferences towards melanin levels clearly have more to do with the culture we’ve been born into than any degree of worth.

Although to be fair, if I wasn’t so obsessed with getting a little color on my face, I probably wouldn’t need that all that anti-wrinkle cream either.

~ Molly

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The famous temples of Angkor Park taking on some water

For awhile there it appeared we timed our arrival in countries to make sure we caught rainy season in full swing. September is monsoon season in India. We arrived in Delhi on September 1st. In Thailand, the wettest month of the year is October. We flew in on September 27th. We decided very early on that it would be impossible to avoid foul weather everywhere, especially with the wacky, pattern-challenging trends happening around the globe. But honestly, this was looking ridiculous.

For most of our time in India, we only had rainy days in Delhi, which gave us an excuse to stay in and catch up on work. And we didn’t start to feel the impact of the wet season in Thailand until we tried to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north via train.

We arrived at the train station in Bangkok about an hour before our 6:30pm overnight train to Chiang Mai was to depart. Immediately, we were approached by a man who started trying to tell us something, but we abruptly brushed him off. Ha! Are you kidding me? We just left India. We’re not going to fall for a random man in the train station trying to derail our plans scam. But we didn’t get more than five feet before a woman walked to us and explained that all the trains to the north were canceled because of the floods.

Floods? I may have seen something about it on the train website (which I guess I ignored.) We looked up at the TV stations in Hualampong Station and it was clear floods were a growing issue in Thailand.

What were we going to do? After we got a refund on our train tickets, the woman in the station directed us to a tourist office which promptly got us on an overnight bus leaving that night.

But I need to give you a little more information. We were warned about the overnight buses before coming to Thailand. A friend of a friend had taken an overnight bus on a very popular tourist route and woke up to find all of his money in his money belt gone. (A money belt is a wallet that many travelers wear underneath their clothes so you can imagine that it’s very difficult to get money out of the belt without waking the victim.) He discovered that many of his fellow bus riders were also robbed. The conclusion of this mystery is they were gassed into a deep sleep somewhere along the ride, allowing the bus driver and a team of cohorts to strip the tourists of their belongings. I did some research on this horror story and it apparently happened enough times to make the official warning list. So as you can imagine, the thought of taking an overnight bus was a little unsettling to us.

I gave the woman at the tourist office the third degree as she prepared our new bus tickets and demanded that she ensure our bus was safe (like that would really help.) Nellu tried impress on me that none of this would do any good while the woman and a colleague showed me that it would be an official government bus. “See this symbol,” they said.

The good news is that we weren’t gassed on the trip unless you count the seriously aggressive air-conditioning that left us cowering under our blankets and anything else we could find. (I lent Nellu my windbreaker which fit his slim figure surprisingly well.) But I still lodged my wallet in a strategic hiding place (which I am not going to disclose just in case I have to use it again.)

There was a little water on the roads but nothing like we had seen on TV and when we reached Chiang Mai, any city we saw was flood free. It wasn’t until Cambodia that we really found ourselves in high water.

We decided to fly from Laos to Cambodia to avoid possibly three days of travel and several tedious overland border crossings. The flight from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap was less than two hours and were were able to get a deal from Lao Airlines. (Yes that’s right folks – less than two hours by plane but three days via bus and train and tuk tuk). As we flew in over the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia, there was so much water on the ground, overflow from their great lake, I wondered where we would land.

We had gone to Siem Reap to see the great temples in Angkor Park, the most famous being of course Angkor Wat. We booked an off-road bike tour that would take us over 40km to see the temples. In the previous weeks, we had seen many reports of the floods so Nellu emailed days in advance to see if we could still go on the tour or if the temples were underwater. The area did sustain some flooding. Parts of our tour we’d have to deal with thicker mud and we might have to walk in water up to our knees. But we were tough, we told each other. We could handle it right?

We would need plastic shoes though. Nellu only had his already incredibly beaten up Converse sneaks. And to me there was nothing like having to walk around in wet shoes. We checked into our guesthouse and immediately inquired where we might be able to buy some flip flops. Some of you who are reading this may be wondering why we don’t have flip flops. I have some leather sandals and a pair of trekking shoes that would have done the trick, but I left those with one of our big duffles back in Bangkok. (Remember, we were clueless to the floods). And Nellu has a personal no-open-toed shoe policy that he has maintained throughout the entire time I’ve known him. So we borrowed two of the guesthouse bikes and headed downtown.

Unfortunately, the route we wanted to take was severely flooded. I went closer to get some video footage, trying in vain to keep my feet dry. It was clear that the locals had dealt with this problem before. There was a tractor to take people back and forth over a particularly deep intersection but for the most part people just walked right through the spots even if that meant being up to their waist in water.

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We finally found the old market and got two pairs of plastic shoes and headed home to prepare for our big ride the next day. Nellu is going fill you in on some of the gory details of our off-road bike trip but here’s a tease: both of us ended up in overfilled rice patties and I found myself at one point up to my knees in mud trying to rescue my new plastic shoe while the ground was working to suction it off.

Up to my knees in mud

After Cambodia, we headed back to Bangkok for an overnight before taking off for the island Koh Phagnan off the eastern coast of the Thailand tail. On the six hour train ride from the Aranyaprathet/Poipet border towns, we witnessed more of the flooding on the Thai side. It was clear that vast areas had taken on much more water than the ground was ready to absorb. Back in Bangkok, we planned to stay with the same guesthouse we had during our first week in the city but we got an email from the owner that due to the floods threatening the city’s inner core he was closing shop. He found us a place to stay nearby and even brought over the bags we left in his storage room.

The morning we left for the beach, the Bangkok Post headline read, “Capital declared safe.” That declaration was clearly premature.

The floods in Southeast Asia have caused more than 1000 deaths across the region. The impact of these high waters will be felt for sometime to come.

~ Molly

After spending the previous night watching the fights, we woke up early to experience another aspect of Thai culture… the food. Of the top things to do in Chiang Mai (according to TripAdvisor.com), other than spending some time with some elephants, is to take a cooking class. We chose one that seemed to fit our speed : A Lot of Thai. It was a family run, 10 year business which offered small classes for full & half day.

This is the converted side-garage kitchen and cooking stations. Notice the blue VW bus in the back. (Photo by Jack Zalium)

The pickup was done in an old VW bus by the chef’s husband and partner, Kwan (also the graphic designer for their site, business cards, advertisement, etc). We had eaten a small breakfast beforehand not sure what to expect. That was a big mistake. As soon as we arrived, Yui (Siripen Sriyabhaya) introduced herself, handed us our aprons, complementary take-home cookbook and then started cooking. She would demonstrate making the dish first and then we would each go to our stations and try the same. The first dish we would make would be pad thai breakfast.

Eating the pad thai that I made; DELICIOUS! (Photo by Molly)

Other dishes soon followed : tom yum goong, green/red curry, simple stir-fry chicken with cashews, spring rolls and even mango sticky rice. I could go into details about how to make it and how it tasted, but it won’t do you or the food justice. It is something that you will just have to experience on your own.

Molly tastes the green curry she made. (Photo by Jack Zalium)

Yui makes simple versions of these dishes using only the necessary amount of oil and fresh ingredients. I have had a lot of Thai food prior to my visit to Thailand (and even in Thailand itself) but none have been as good. We had originally signed up for the half day class not sure that we would want to stay for the whole day, but after making several dishes we were hooked. We immediately asked if we could stay for the whole day.

Enjoying lime slushies as we walk through the market with Yui.

After several hours of cooking and eating, we take a much needed break and shuffle into the VW to go to the market. There we see some of our ingredients up close, meet some of Yui’s merchant friends and have a quick snack. After the break, we said goodbye to the ‘half-dayers’ and returned to the kitchen to make some more dishes.

Molly, Yui, me and the VW Bus.

The main attraction in all this is Yui. She mentions quite often that she learned to cook simply because she liked to eat and making it herself was the only way to keep the cost down. She smiles and laughs frequently, with mannerisms similar to Martin Yan. Her stories are varied and personal but definitely do NOT get her mad as she can throw a wicked hook (thankfully we only experienced it in story form). The mood here is light and informative, where no one should feel self conscious or out of place.

This was one of the main attractions of Chiang Mai and of Thailand itself. We learned to cook some of our favorite dishes, were stuffed to the gills on great Thai food, heard some great stories and we even met another American couple that was also traveling the world (Two Backpacks One World). Who could ask for a better end to our time in the north and our first venture into Thailand?

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