What did I learn: THAILAND

Red Lotus Sea in Isaan – Source

This month I learned a lot about Thailand, but I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface!

First of all, the food. My god, the food – where do I even begin? I found some amazing new restaurants (and I now know to look for Thai Select ones), both casual spots to have a papaya salad or some fried snacks, and nice sit-down locations with beautiful dishes. I also got to try my hand at cooking Thai food – everything from ceviche to larb to a custard in a pumpkin. I’m going to use the brining method from the tom kha gai recipe going forward, I can’t believe how tender that chicken was. There were great snacks too (1, 2, 3, 4) and I even overcame my reticence to durian.

And all of this while allergic to one of the main ingredients in Thai food – shrimp!

But Thailand is so much more than food – there’s some great literature, really good music (classical, underground, modern, and Big Ass), and neat TV shows and movies – I wish I had a chance to get even more into them this month!

I’m also glad I got to learn more about some of the more serious sides of Thailand, its economic and ecological struggle with (over)tourism, the political upheaval that its been facing in recent years (or in the past), the place of religion in society, and Thailand’s unique LGBTQ identities.

I feel like I could keep digging further – I’d love to learn more about Isaan in the north – a place that’s culturally and historically Lao. I also would like to learn more about the Chinese community, as well as more about Thailand’s history in general and traditional Thai art.

But this will have to be on my own time, on to the next country!

THAILAND: The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon

The Sad Part Was is a collection of short stories by writer and artist Prabda Yoon, and what an intriguing set of short stories it is! They vary in theme and form, with experimental stylistic turns – one short story is contained in a sentence’s parenthesis, others play on words or concepts, and in my favourite, a short story character breaks the fourth wall to rail against Yoon himself.

The stories have introspective and slightly off-kilter angles, with some callous situations, like truckers shrugging over the disappearance of a vampire, and some sweet, like a woman whose son has never seen snow but still brings her some every day.

The Translator’s Note hints at the skill needed to translate these stories from Thai to English – Mui Poopoksakul won a PEN award for her translation.

THAILAND: Kathoeys and Toms

Thailand is well known for being one of the most open Asian countries for trans and queer people. Why it stands out compared to its neighbours is largely chalked up to traditional Thai culture, which includes third genders, mixed with Buddhism’s focus on the inherent earthliness of all matters of sex and gender. That being said, legal equality for the LGBTQ community isn’t there yet, discrimination definitely still exists, and many people end up either choosing or needing to work in the sex industry.

I was looking for interviews with Thai kathoeys – the trans women who often are the face of discussions on sex and gender in Thailand, and oh boy, I had to wade through a LOT of weird exoticizing and fetishizing “ladyboy” crap first.

I’m not going to share any of that, instead, I want to start with an interview with Sirikanya Julalukkun (Sauce), and entrepreneur and actress about her experiences as a trans woman. What’s very interesting is that she herself draws a distinction between trans and cis women in a different way than we do in the West.

The term kathoey can also be a bit broader in Thailand – it mainly means trans women, but can also include intersex people, other gender expressions, as well as drag performers or feminine gay men.

Less talked about internationally when looking at gender and sexuality in Thailand are Toms – gay women who present in a very masculine fashion, while still identifying as a woman. They’re very similar to butch lesbians (and have corresponding femmes, called Dees). However, they usually don’t use the term lesbian, which in Thailand instead generally refers to feminine gay women who are attracted to other feminine women. There’s a lot more complexity and subtlety to these identities and they don’t fit exactly into a lot of Western ideas of queerness – I’d strongly suggest the below video for more details on Toms.

THAILAND: Short stories and poetry

The Grand Palace in Bangkok – Source: Fodor’s

From Words Without Borders, a really interesting mix of Thai short stories and poems – a trash dystopia, kid left abandoned to the neighbourhood, and some things never change.

THAILAND: Snacks galore!

Here’s the second half of my order from Thai Snack Online. I’m really looking forward to trying these – I saved the ones I was most excited about for last.

Roscela Milk Tablet – Little round tablets that taste like condensed milk – they have a consistency somewhere between chewable vitamins and freeze dried ice cream. They’re sweet but not too sweet – they’re new to me but I like them a lot!

Knorr Pork and Seaweed instant congee – Instant congee, just add water. Had it for breakfast one day, it’s not bad. It rehydrates a little watery, but with lots of flavour – nice and salty.

Taro Extreme Hot Cuttlefish – These dried fish strips are promising me extreme heat – let’s see if they deliver. They’ve got some sweetness, a fishy flavour, and yes, they are spicy! It’s not instant fire, instead the heat builds up for a good mouth burn.

Tawan Spicy Larb Tapioca Chips – Really nice texture to the chips, and it does have a lovely larb flavour – meat and lime and mint. Only mildly spicy, though, but very flavourful.

Tamarind House Tamarind 4 Tastes – More from Tamarind House, but this time it IS tamarind! Four flavour tamarind, to be exact – sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. It’s shelled tamarind with the seeds still inside, with a dusting of salt, sugar, and chili. Yum. I feel like I should be eating this outside so I can spit the seeds!

THAILAND: Buddhism and temples

Thailand is a deeply Buddhist nation, with the vast majority of Thais identifying, if not fully practicing, as Buddhist. A brief little look at the history of Buddhism in Thailand:

Modern-day Thai Buddhism is facing some of the same tensions that other religions are face. It’s very interesting to contrast these two reports:

As for the temples themselves, in addition to their religious and cultural importance, Thai Buddhist architecture is gorgeous. There are thousands on thousands of temples across the country, from the very small the very grand.

A less-traditional but totally jaw-dropping temple, Wat Rong Khun, all in white – I really like the sly use of gold for the bathrooms.

And even less traditional than that is Wat Samphran:

THAILAND: Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj

I have a soft spot for those big books that follow a person’s whole life (Pachinko or The Toss of a Lemon are some of my favourites) and Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj is another great one of this genre.

Four Reigns follows the life of Phloi, a woman from a minor noble family, as she enters the court of King Rama V as a young girl in the 1890s, through her marriage and children, Thailand’s modernization in the early 20th century, the first Thai coup of 1932, which brought a constitutional monarchy, and WWII. All through this, the reigns of the four Thai kings interweave in the background, running parallel to Phloi and her family’s lives.

What struck me most was the realism – many of these books heap suffering on their heroines but this one is paced so much more like real life. The bad is mixed in with the good, some things do not end with poetic justness, family disputes are often as just serious as larger historical events. It’s an immense book, over 650 pages, but it flows beautifully, with Phloi as both a woman of her era and a deeply complex realistic person.

Four Reigns was published in 1953, and is taught in Thai schools today. Kukrit Pramoj had an impressive life of his own, with a large bibliography of fiction, non-fiction, and academic works on traditional Thai culture. He also briefly served as Prime Minister of Thailand (as did his brother), and his love of the Thai monarchy in Four Reigns is not surprising, as he also had royal blood – he was the great-grandson of King Rama II.

THAILAND: Keow krob and tod mun pla

Had to check out another Thai Select-awarded restaurant before the month ends! I ordered a couple appetizers from Talay Thai; keow krob and tod mun pla – I’ve never tried either before!

Keow krob is minced meat in a fried wonton skin. It seems most often to be pork, but this one is chicken. My guess is this dish has its roots in Thailand’s Chinese community, though I don’t know for sure. It’s tasty (I mean it’s a friend wonton!) and comes with a slightly sweet chili sauce.

Tod mun pla is fish cake, ground with curry paste, herbs and veggies, and then fried. They’re pretty mild in flavour and complement the sauce – a spicy and tangy fish sauce with lemongrass, peanut, and cucumber pieces. I want a big jar just of the sauce itself!

THAILAND: The Town of Sriracha

Source: Thai Smile

Sriracha really got trendy about a decade ago in North America, particularly the Huy Fong brand – they’re still selling sriracha socks in bookstores here. However, while that brand was started by a Vietnamese emigrant to the United States, sriracha is actually named after the Thai town of Si Racha (alternatively spelled Sriracha). The sauce’s origins are a bit murky, with differing claims, but with general consensus that it originated in the town. There are all kinds of brands and varieties of the sauce, with the Thai version being a bit runnier than the North American kind, but they all are made with hot chilies, garlic, vinegar, salt and sugar.

The town of Si Racha is a small place, on the coast south of Bangkok, with a pretty waterfront and lots of green space. There seems to be a large Chinese and Japanese population in the town, and of course, a lot of focus on the famous sauce.


Perfect for a rainy day – a hot and sour chicken mushroom soup with coconut and lemongrass. This is another recipe from Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market – a great cookbook that has both authentic Thai home cooking, as well as showier dishes (and really useful sauce and ingredient prep sections).

This recipe calls for briefly brining the chicken with garlic and lemongrass beforehand, and using chicken thighs – which meant the meat was incredibly tender. The broth is built off of coconut milk, lime, lemongrass, with some hot chilies and fish sauce (I’m discovering just how versatile Thai fish sauce is). This is also my first time cooking with fresh galangal. I really like that punchy menthol flavour – I’m going to experiment with it more!