Last fall, after our whirlwind tour of Spain, France and Italy during Slow Food’s Terra Madre event, we flew to Thailand to spend a month soaking up the sights, sounds and delicious food crops of this amazingly diverse country. Our mission, besides a little down time, was to collect seed varieties from the Hill Tribes.
After landing in Bangkok, a taxi took us through the maze of highways and byways downtown to a small vegetarian restaurant tucked away in an alley. Upon walking in, we were greeted by Maneki-neko, the Chinese lucky cat with its mechanical arm waving up and down. We were amazed by the huge menu of delicious vegan dishes. We wanted to sample everything, but limited our choices to some vegetables we had been dying to try in their homeland, such as bitter melon. The meal was served family style, complete with the toddler checking out Sasha’s plate and the family Siamese cat sitting next to me.
We spent a couple days taking in the city and all the glorious markets. Ask anyone who has been to Thailand and they will tell you the various scents that fill the big city streets are overpowering. One commonality I found was the lack of trash cans. If someone sets a cup down, it just becomes a new place to pile the trash — and pile it they do. I suppose it is job security for the street sweepers wearing surgical masks in the morning. So between the scents of trash mingling with the scents wafting from a myriad of food vendors selling every cut of meat, seafood and insect you can imagine, it is a sensory overload.
From Bangkok we traveled by bus to Kanchanaburi where we traded taxis for tuktuks and pick-up bed transportation. Just down the street from where we stayed, we found On’s Thai Issan restaurant, which is where we ate morning, noon and night. The tiny vegetarian restaurant only seated about 15 people max, and the kitchen was outdoors. Mrs. On cooked dishes to order over a blazing wok while the neighbors dropped in to catch up on the morning gossip street-side. By the time we left, we felt like family.
In Kanchanaburi we picked up our missionary friend, Anthony, who would serve as our driver/translator for the rest of our trip. (Neither Jere nor I wanted to try to wrap our brains around driving on the opposite side of the road. So we were more than happy to turn the wheel over to him.) Anthony traveled with us to Chaing Mai where we wound around tiny mountain roads and through rubber plantations in search of tribal villages. This was why we were here in the first place, to locate the Hmong, Lao, Karen and Lisu people and find out what they were growing in their gardens.
Entering their villages was like stepping back in time. Children ran through the dirt streets in their native attire while the grandmothers chewed beetle-nut. The bamboo-stilt huts had clothes hanging from the porch while the family hog wallowed underneath. Chickens scattered across the road while their sleepy Thai dogs could care less.
As we traveled along,we worked our way toward Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon. Along the road, we saw one of many interesting fruit stands. After stopping, Anthony and Jere went down the row of new-to-us fruits and vegetables and found out their names and uses. Once they settled on a substantial amount of fruit for seed saving, it then took some convincing that all we wanted was the seed and they could keep the fruit itself. During this process, a hard rain shower hit, and so they all took refuge inside the family “tent.” The fruit was piled high upon their beds and hacked open with machetes, all the while the juice splattered and drained into their bedding. The rain poured on the tarp, which was their only roof — so much so that it started leaking and a small channel on the dirt floor directed the water out of the dwelling and away from the family’s prized television. Bottles sitting about that once contained whisky were refilled with mountain honey to be sold at the fruit stand. Through the process, we had made new friends and were sent on our way with toothless grins in the rear view mirror and great mounds of seeds to take home.
On the way to Burma, we found another fruit stand mounded with enticing yellow orbs. After doing a double take, we hit reverse. The young Karen couple who owned this fruit stand had just had a new baby. The mother was back at work carrying the starkly naked child in one arm and serving steaming hot sticky corn with the other. The melon-like fruit that caught our attention was the Karen Mountain Cucumber, which they traditionally use in curries. Upon realizing our interest, the wife ran over and eagerly gave all of us a slice of this deliciously mild, sweet fruit. Together, they worked on carefully removing all the seeds so we could grow them in our gardens this year and in turn pass them on to our customers.
After our brief trip in Burma, we started the 12-hour trek back to Kanchanaburi. Along the way, we’d strike off on rabbit trails through narrow mountain roads sometimes finding a dead-end or a waterfall for Sasha to dip her toes in.
On one Sunday as we worked our way through the mountains, we found another Karen village. The bamboo huts were strangely vacant, and in the distance we heard beautiful singing. As we drove closer, we found three Christian churches filled to the brim with villagers. Puppies followed the toddlers into the sanctuary while the chickens eagerly looked for insects outside. By the time we were ready to leave, everyone was out of the churches and lined up across the road holding empty plates waiting to be filled for the fellowship meal. In the villages, cars are rarely seen compared to motorbikes, and so every eye turned to us. With our windows down, we smiled and waved and were eagerly greeted with the same response.
At the end of the village road, we found one family who had gone to their squash field to harvest for the local market. We stopped the car and with Anthony’s help started a conversation with the father. The mother and children continued to toss squash into their bamboo baskets and cloth sacks. The aged grandmother carefully picked squash vine for the family stir fry. We learned that this particular variety had been in their village for generations and was resistant to insects. Needless to say, they didn’t have to take these to market; they were piled high in the trunk of our car to later be cut open along some mountain road.
In our journeys throughout Thailand, it’s easy to see why it is fondly called “The Land of Smiles.” The people are incredibly kind and willing to help all they can. They are especially entranced to find westerners who are interested in preserving their traditional food crops and growing them across the sea. It seemed to be a great compliment to them that we would value their food diversity and desire to learn more about their culture.
The seeds we have brought home with us from Thailand are our greatest souvenir. They are a physical tie to our memories that were made among the tribal people. Each time we slice open a Karen cucumber, I see the smiling couple and their newborn at the foot of the mountain, and their eagerness in sharing their bounty with us makes us even more eager to share it with others.