You ordered a WHAT?1
The language barrier can often pose a problem when ordering in restaurants. We share a few funny moments and give some tips on getting your point across.
Ordering in a restaurant in Thailand can sometimes be hit and miss. And while staff in tourist areas will have some knowledge of English, there are still often errors due to miscommunication. Before we get in to how you can avoid some of these common pitfalls when ordering, let’s look at a few examples of what we mean. Of course we’ve had many of our own experiences and have learnt by trial and error, but to get a broader spectrum, we posed the question of ‘what went wrong’ to several expats on the island. Here are a few replies, listed anonymously to protect the businesses concerned:
One mistake that kept popping up is asking for a glass of white wine, and being brought the WiFi password. Go on, say it out loud. See? It’s an easy mistake to make. Sometimes the reverse happens too and you’ll end up having a few drinks when all you wanted to do was answer your emails, as you feel too bad to send back that glass of wine. One local lady ordered a glass of Bailey’s Liqueur and got brought a bay leaf on a plate – wonder what the waiter thought she wanted that for?
Another drinks related episode – one of our visitors asked for a single espresso, and got given a Singha beer instead. And as one expat described, “I ordered a Cuba Libre in one bar, and got told ‘no have’, so I ordered a rum and coke instead – and got one.” Right, so here’s the first tip:
Unless the establishment has the quirky name of the drink on their menu, where you can literally point and order, stick to calling it what it actually is, as the case above points out. So, rather than ordering a ‘Screwdriver’, order a vodka and orange juice. You may just find the barman running down to the maintenance room… and in much the same way, it’s probably best not to ask for your scotch ‘on the rocks’, but rather with ice.
Sometimes, you have to wonder what the poor waiter must think of you, when you discover the miscommunication. Another expat recalls asking a bartender if he could make ‘Jaegerbombs’, and he promptly came back with the phone number of the local drug dealer. Oh dear. Yet another embarrassing story is that of regular visitors to the island. They asked at a local café where they could try a Thai barbecue… only to be told that the temple was ‘burning a monk’ the next day, so they should go down there. Not quite what they had in mind.
Menus themselves are often cause for confusion. Some are obvious spelling errors, easy enough to decipher, and you’ll commonly see ‘snakes’ instead of shakes, and ‘French fried’ instead of fries. And then there’s the tongue in cheek faux pas, ‘orgasmic’ vegetables instead of, you guessed it, organic.
Don’t be alarmed if you read ‘horse shit crap’ on the menu. It’s meant to read as ‘horse shoe crab’. Again, fried crap in curry sauce is more delicious than it sounds. And on a breakfast menu we once saw 'cockroaches' instead of coco pops listed under the cereals, the manage wondered why they weren't too popular with the children!
But other times, you just have to wonder what on earth is meant with menu items such as ‘Fried pork with pour the page’, or ‘Fried pork with the cotton that stops’. Evidently, Google translate has missed the mark with these.
Another tip would be to learn a few food names of your favourite dishes or ingredients. Just as important would be the names of items that you’re allergic to or can’t eat, such as peanuts or seafood. For the vegetarians, say ‘gin jae’ and you’ll be fine. Many restaurants now put pictures next to the menu items, which help a lot. And to avoid mispronunciation, it’s often better to point at the menu when ordering. Sometimes, the item is written in Thai underneath, making it easier for the waiter to get it right.
When placing your order, a couple of things will help to actually get what you ordered. So remembering the barman with the screwdriver and rocks, the same applies to food. Don’t use idioms such as ‘sunny side up’ or ‘easy over’ when talking about eggs, or ‘blue’ when you want your steak only seared. Remember too that the waiter is dealing with customers of many nationalities, so your ‘ketchup’ may be another’s ‘tomato sauce’, or ‘chips’ may be ‘French fries’.
When placing your order, speak slowly and clearly. Focus on clearly enunciating and slowing down, but without sounding like a stretched tape. Speak naturally, but without connecting your words, even if you’re pressured for time. Don’t rush through your communication, as doing so often takes more time, as misunderstanding can result and you’ll ultimately have to invest additional time in clearing up the confusion – or just accepting what got delivered to your table. Point to the item listed on the menu, to back up what you’re saying.
Be patient. Cross-cultural communication takes more time and you can’t expect
communication to occur with the same speed and ease as when you’re communicating with someone from your own culture. Relax, enjoy the view, and remember to say, ‘mai pen rai’, when things go wrong. For those not in the know, this is a common Thai phrase that basically translates to ‘no worries’, while at the same time, accepting the situation for what it is. Another important point – be careful not to sound patronising – not understanding another language does not mean the person is of lower intelligence. And speaking louder is no solution, yet common to witness.
So take note of the tips above, but if the wrong dish arrives, sometimes it’s better to just accept it. You never know, you may have just accidentally discovered your new favourite dish! The universe works in mysterious ways…
Dealing with Culture Shock
Culture Shock – a much used term for those who travel. But what does it mean exactly?
Culture shock is what you experience after leaving the familiarities of your home culture to live in another cultural or social environment. Even those who are open-minded and well-travelled are not immune to culture shock. Symptoms include homesickness, anger, loneliness and boredom. Everyone will experience culture shock to some extend, but there are ways to deal with it and minimize the effects.
Firstly, understand what you are going through and why you feel insecure or anxious. You are faced with a different climate, unfamiliar with your surroundings, as well as people with different values, attitudes, lifestyles, and political and religious beliefs, and oftentimes, you can’t even understand them due to language barriers! Understanding why you feel the way you do will help you to overcome the feeling.
Once you understand, the next step is to accept and adapt to your new culture. Just because something is different, doesn’t mean it is wrong, so learn to do things the way the locals do, and accept that it’s the way it’s done in your new home.
Learn as much as possible about your destination before leaving home. Be open-mined and it will be easier to understand the differences and see things from a different perspective. If you know why people do things the way they do them, it’s easy to accept the differences.
Having a positive attitude can make all the difference. This goes with anything in life, but is especially true when travelling and interacting with new people in new surroundings.
Stay in touch with those back home. But… if you spend all your time connecting with family and friends back home, you’ll just keep feeling homesick and won’t feel up to making new friends. Rather spend your time exploring and meeting new people, and then you have something to tell loved ones back home.
Don’t compare your home culture to your new culture! Noticing the differences is normal, and can be fun, but see the differences as just that – different and exciting, not inferior to home. Take the opportunity to learn as much as possible about your new location and culture.
Keep yourself busy. Particularly enjoy the things you can’t do at home. Try new foods, swim in the sea, explore, make new friends, take full advantage of the time abroad, rather than being afraid and hiding in your hotel room. Don’t have regrets later by saying ‘if only I had done this or seen that…’
Laugh at yourself! If you get lost, just see it as a way to see a new place that you didn’t expect to see. Surrounding yourself with positive people can make all the difference. Don’t get sucked into the inevitable groups of ‘grumpy old expats’ who should have gone back home long ago, and now love trashing their new home.
There are different phases of culture shock, and knowing which you are going through will also help you to overcome it.
The Honeymoon Phase: This is a fun time, when all is great, exciting, and new. You embrace the differences, go out of your way to try the weird and wonderful food and relish meeting exotic new people. This phase can last days, weeks, or months.
The Honeymoon is Over Phase: During this phase, you start observing differences, however slight, and not always in a good way. You’ve had enough of the food, and miss home comforts and tastes. The local attitudes annoy you, and things are just so much better at home. During this phase, you may feel sad, irritable, angry or anxious. You miss holidays from home such as Christmas or Thanksgiving, and feel sad when you miss out on events such as birthday celebrations back home.
The Negotiation Phase: Now you decide if you will give in to negativity or power on past it to make the most of your experience. If you're successful, you regain your sense of perspective, balance, and humour, and move on to the next phase.
The All's Well, or Everything is OK Phase: You start feeling more at home with the differences in the new culture. After a while, you may feel as if the culture isn't in fact new, but that you belong here now, or you may not exactly feel part of the culture, but you’re comfortable enough with it to enjoy the differences and challenges. You don’t necessarily have to be in love with the new country (as in the honeymoon phase), but you can navigate it without unwarranted anxiety, negativity, and criticism.
The Reverse Culture Shock Phase: This happens to most who have lived abroad a while. Once you’ve become accustomed to the way things are done in a different country, you can go through the same series of culture shock phases when you return home.
Culture shock can present itself at any time, and it’s often the small things we feel the most – like navigating a grocery store with unfamiliar products in currencies we are not familiar with. Working abroad has its own challenges, as aside from day-to-day cultural differences, there are also the differences in the work place. For example, if you are typically organised and punctual, you may struggle to adapt working to a culture with a more relaxed working environment. Or, if you’re a woman, you may find it difficult to adapt in a country where there is gender inequality.
It’s most important to be patient – in time, things that once were strange will be the norm. Be kind to yourself, and don’t place high expectations on yourself until you have adjusted to your new life. While moving to a new country is daunting in many ways, it can be equally rewarding, and by not giving it a try, you’ll always have regrets.
Thailand is known for its beautiful beaches, and Ko Samui is no exception.
Being one of Thailand’s most popular tourist locations, Samui’s beaches may no longer be as secluded as those of the smaller islands. For some, this is not a negative; a beach with a party scene or more activity being preferable. Those still opting for isolation or authenticity need not worry, as this can still be found along the island’s southern shores, as well as a few hidden bays amid the busier north and east coast beaches.
What makes a good beach? To some it means soft white sand, clear and calm water, a coconut palm to offer shade and no distractions. To others the mental picture of the perfect beach involves plentiful deck chairs, entertainment in the way of music, a barman on call to top up that cocktail and a crowd to share this with. Still to others with young children this would imply a safe swimming beach, bathroom facilities, family friendly restaurants and no topless bathers. It is therefore not possible to list Samui’s beaches from best to worst, as this would be in the eye of the beholder. We have made a few suggestions, allowing one to choose the best spot to lay your towel, depending on your ideal memory-making beach.
Chaweng Beach lies on the island’s east coast, and is Samui’s longest and busiest beach. Should one arrive early morning, it is easy to see why this was the first beach area to develop in tourism. Private villas no longer grace Chaweng’s shores and every available space has been used for economic benefit in the way of resorts, restaurants and bars. Room rates along this beach are inflated, and there is no longer anything available in the backpacker or even flashpacker range. However, those wanting a social scene have made the right choice in Chaweng, as venues such as Ark Bar pump out music and fill every open patch of sand with sun beds. Do not expect peace and quiet – if the vendors don’t disturb you, the jetskis will. At night the party continues, and day beds are turned into chill platforms, while the serious deejays hit the deck.
Those enjoying water sports have several options with all the main beaches offering some form of equipment hire. Surfers will be let down however, as Samui has no waves – at all. SUP (stand up paddling) has become the latest trend on the island as no waves are needed, and boards and lessons are available in Chaweng, Lamai and Mae Nam. All the busier beaches, as well as many of the resorts will hire out kayaks at around 100 to 200 baht per hour, a great way to exercise the upper body, and see Samui from a different angle. Kite surfing is popular along Mae Nam beach, particularly at the point in front of the W Retreat, where Mae Nam beach meets Bophut beach, and the wind is at its best by Samui standards. Jetskis are controversial on the island, as they annoy anyone not on one. However, should you prefer engine power over muscle power, then they’re available for hire at Chaweng, Lamai, Choeng Mon and Bophut beaches. Be aware of bathers, as there don’t seem to be designated areas for the jetskis, and nasty accidents have happened.
Underwater world lovers may want to book a day snorkeling trip to Ko Tao, about 90 minutes by ferry from Samui, and known as one of the best snorkeling and dive locations in South East Asia. Should you not want to venture as far, then the best snorkeling option would be to either take a longboat trip, only a few hundred metres across to Ko Tan and Ko Matsum, two small islands off the southern harbour of Thong Krut. Here the snorkeling is even better than the Ang Thong Marine Park. Without leaving Samui, try the small bays of Coral Cove and Crystal Bay, between Chaweng and Lamai.
If the thought of a quiet beach, shared only with a few fishermen and perhaps a water buffalo appeals to you, then explore Samui’s south western coastline. Taling Ngam beach, is long and at parts is shared by a few resorts, but other parts are totally isolated as is neighbouring Phang Ka Bay. Don’t be afraid to travel down a dirt path and explore -- Samui is safe to do so, and there’re a few patches down south that are completely void of development. Samrong and Thongson Bays at the north eastern tip of Samui, although not undeveloped, have managed to escape mass tourism, as they are not on the main routes, and only those in the know, or guests of the resorts in these bays will share them with you.
Choeng Mon beach (where our TEFL centre is located) is popular with expat families, due to clean water and protected bay. You’ll find good restaurants as well as a few food vendors around when the hunger pangs arrive, but the bar scene is unobtrusive. Bang Rak beach is popular with Thai families, and here one will see children swimming early evening, while grandmothers dig with toes in the sand in search of clams for dinner.
The best backpacker spots can still be found nestled between high end resorts and villas along the much underrated Mae Nam beach as well as a few to the western end of Bophut beach.
Whether a cushioned sun lounger, attentive barman keeping the Mojitos rolling, and cool vibes blaring from nearby speakers -- or a patch to spread your towel under a palm, book in hand, to call your own for a few hours is your scene, Samui has it to offer. Time to explore.
As a traveller around Southeast Asia, you should be aware and sensitive to the different religions and customs.
No matter the religion, food plays an integral part in the beliefs as well as ceremonies and rituals.
Since Eve handed Adam the apple and doomed the human race for eternity, food has played a strong role in religious beliefs. Some of us are more religious than others – some follow strict orthodox practices determined by their religion, and others loosely observe the ‘rules’ dictated by the religion that they were born in to. For many, dietary habits are derived from religious laws, and all over the world many people choose to eat or avoid certain foods according to their religious beliefs. When a country’s people are predominantly from one religion, it can be difficult to eat a food frowned upon by that following – for example, it might not be so easy to get a big juicy beef steak in India, where the main religion is Hinduism, and the cow is considered sacred. Likewise, a bacon sandwich in Jerusalem might not be so easy to find…
Most religions involve practices of both fasting and feasting – with fasting showing restraint and feasting being a time of celebration, thanksgiving and coming together as a community. While some practices involving food may seem obscure to those not of the faith (such as consuming wine and communion wafers representing the blood and body of Jesus), with a little research, you’ll find a reason for the practice, often going back millennia. Food choice is due to different reasons, with religion being one of the strongest principles on which diets are based. Sacred places such as altars and shrines and sacred times such as feast and fasting days, as well as symbolism and myth (what foods represent or the stories they recall) are all part of religious rituals linked to food.
So let’s look at the basic principles involving food and the most common religions, starting with Buddhism, the prevailing religion of Thailand. Many believe that all Buddhists are vegetarian, but strictly speaking, that’s not true – just think of all the pork consumed here in Thailand! Buddha was not a vegetarian, and he didn’t prohibit eating meat. Roughly speaking amongst the two major Buddhist traditions, the Mahayanists are vegetarian and the Theravadins (the form practiced here in Thailand) are not. Buddhism considers living beings to be sacred; a belief that has translated into widely practiced vegetarianism and veganism.
Violence towards animals is considered to translate into human aggression; hence most Buddhists will keep to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence or harmlessness) and avoid all foods related to processes where harm was done. Hence, some Buddhists avoid meat and dairy products while others avoid only meat. Monks of this religion fast in the afternoon and rely on ‘alms’ or donations of food as they, along with Buddhist nuns, are not allowed to cultivate, store or cook their own food. The birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha are the three most commonly recognised festivals for feasting, resting from work, or fasting. Buddhist monks fast completely on certain days of the moon, and they routinely avoid eating any solid foods after the noon hour.
You’ll see spirit houses throughout Thailand, and strictly speaking, they have nothing to do with Buddhism. Animism, or spirit worship, is probably the oldest form of religion in the world, and when Buddhism arrived in South East Asia, it developed alongside the ancient spirit worship. Today many of the beliefs are knitted with Buddhism and form part of everyday life for Thai people, and you’ll often see locals keeping the spirits happy with food offerings placed at the spirit houses. Fresh fruit, rice, chicken or duck, beer, water and cold drink, keep the spirits' hunger and thirst at bay.
Christianity is the religion predominant in Western cultures, and food regulations differ from one Christian denomination or group to another, with some groups not observing any restrictions at all. Catholics and orthodox Christians fast on certain religious days such as Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Sunday) or during Lent (the 40 days before Jesus arose from the dead). In earlier centuries, meat and dairy products were avoided during a substantial portion of the year, but today it often just means eating fish instead of meat on a Friday. The ritual of consuming bread and wine (Holy Communion or the Eucharist) is regularly celebrated but its symbolic or actual meaning in relation to the body and blood of Jesus Christ depends on the denomination. While most Western children happily enjoy their chocolate Easter eggs, few realise that the egg represents new lift – symbolic of Jesus rising from the dead and allowing Christians to be born again, free of their sins.
Hinduism is one of the most ancient religions in the world and, although meat was not originally prohibited, many Hindus today regard vegetarianism as a way to maintain the respect observed for life. Hinduism is characterised by the avoidance of the killing of any animal, the cleansing of those involved in food preparation, which is a reflection on previously existing caste-restricted practices, and the symbolism of certain foods. The cow is sacred to Hindus, and therefore no beef is consumed. Other products from the cow, however, such as milk, yoghurt, and butter are considered innately pure and are thought to promote purity of the mind, spirit, and body. Many devout Hindus fast on the eighteen major Hindu holidays, as well as on numerous personal days, such as birthdays, and anniversaries of deaths and marriages. They also fast on Sundays and on days associated with various positions of the moon and the planets.
Islam is the faith practiced by some of Thailand’s neighbouring countries, including Malaysia, so you’ll find small Muslim communities within Thailand. The main food practices in Islam involve specific ritual slaughtering procedures for animals of consumption (haram practices), fasting during the month of Ramadan, the avoidance of pork and of intoxicating liquor. Foods are categorised as halal (those than may be eaten) and haram (those that should be avoided), as are other aspects of life. Most foods are halal while the list of haram foods includes pork, alcohol and any products that may contain emulsifiers made from animal fats (such as gelatines and margarines). Bread and bread products fermented by yeast may contain traces of alcohol and in some cases may be considered haram. Moderation in all things, including eating and dietary habits, are an integral part of Islam. Fasting on these religious occasions includes abstaining from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset. In Turkey and other predominantly-Muslim countries, iftar – the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast – has gone from being a humble affair based around dates, soup and some freshly baked bread to something much more elaborate (at least for those who can afford it).
Another of the more well known faiths is Judaism, and in this religion foods are divided into kosher (allowed) or trefa (forbidden). Characteristics of kosher foods include animals that have a completely split hoof and chew cud (such as cows, goats and sheep), while kosher fish must have fins and scales. In general, all plant foods are considered kosher, and a specific slaughtering process must be followed for meat to be considered kosher. Animals such as pigs and rabbits as well as creatures of the sea, such as lobster, shrimp, and clams, may not be eaten. Meat and dairy products must not be prepared, stored or eaten together and certain fasting days are observed (especially Yom Kippur). During the celebration of Passover, food helps to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
There seems to be a growing Rastafarian movement on the island – some just following for the great Reggae music, and others taking the religious aspect into practice too. Most Rastafarians are vegetarian or vegan. Foods that may be consumed by people practicing this religion are called ital, with these foods being characterised by having no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, so are considered pure or natural. Rastafarians also avoid the consumption of alcohol and in some cases also tea, coffee and other caffeinated drinks as it’s considered that these foods confuse the soul.
On an island with a diverse community of locals and expats, it’s good to know the basic principles regarding religions and their food rules, so as not to offend at a social gathering. And there’s no harm in joining in with religious feasts of friends of other religions, such as at Christmas time, or the breaking of the Ramadan fast, when food is plentiful. And we’ll forgive you for tucking into that delicious Easter egg – even if you don’t celebrate Easter.
Does the thought of using chopsticks in public bring on a cold sweat? Here’s the lowdown on their history, how to use them as well as chopsticks etiquette.
Bill Bryson, author of humorous travelogues, wrote, “And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?” – an excerpt from Notes from a Small Island.
Most Westerners feel the same way as Mr Bryson about eating with chopsticks, yet for Asians, their use is second nature, and from a young age, they can master the art of using these simple, yet infuriating utensils. To them, knives at the table are taboo, and in contrast to the Western writer’s statement above, ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, wrote, "The honourable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table." Now few will agree with his out-dated theory that men should stay away from the kitchen, and in fact, most of Samui’s top chefs are men. But many Asians do believe that knives should not be used at the table – granted, a thick fillet steak is not a regular dish on the Asian menu, and most meals are already served bite-sized. Confucius equated knives with acts of aggression, which went against his non-violent teachings, and some experts credit his influence with the widespread adoption of chopsticks throughout China.
So let’s look at the history of chopsticks. While the precise origin of chopsticks is unknown, they were definitely in use by the Shang dynasty (1766 BC - 1122 BC). Their increasing popularity since that time may actually be linked to Chinese cooking methods - before stir-frying the food is cut into tiny pieces, making them easy to manipulate with a chopstick.
For Westerners, the majority of which are fork-using eaters, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the fork has only recently become common cutlery at the dinner table. True, the Byzantines used forks in the 10th century, and Catherine de M'edici introduced this pronged utensil to the French court in the early 1500s. But in the USA, it wasn't until the eighteenth century that people felt the need for more than a knife and spoon. By contrast, chopsticks have been the utensils of choice throughout all of China since the Han dynasty (approximately 200 BC to 200 AD).
Most foodies will agree that Chinese food just tastes better when eaten with chopsticks – in much the same way that pizza or hamburgers really should be eaten with the hands. Not sure how to handle your ‘Kuai zi’? (The word "chop" is pidgin English for kuai, which means quick or speedy, as in chop chop). Here’re a few tips to get you using them like a pro:
If possible, use wood or bamboo chopsticks when you’re a novice, as plastic chopsticks are more slippery and harder to hold. Always grip the chopsticks in the middle, making sure that the ends are even and do not cross. Pick up a chopstick and hold it so that it's resting comfortably between the tip of your fourth finger (the ring finger) and the hollow gap between your thumb and index finger. Keep the fourth finger straight. This will be the bottom chopstick. Now pick up the other chopstick and place it on top, firmly between the tips of your thumb, index and middle fingers. The index and middle fingers should be curled.
When eating, always keep the bottom chopstick stationary and use the top chopstick to move and pick up food. To pick up food, straighten your index and middle fingers as much as needed to move the top chopstick outward. Grab the food, and then bring the chopsticks together by curling your index and middle fingers. The basic idea is to use the chopstick as a pivot, with the thumb being the axle. Lift the food up to your mouth, leaning over if necessary. (It’s not rude to lean over your plate as it is in the West). For food that contains bones (such as chicken), hold the food with the chopsticks and eat around the bone. Children often find it easier to hold chopsticks nearer the bottom instead of in the middle.
No matter where you happen to be enjoying Asian food in the world, knowing how to use chopsticks correctly will come in handy, and a little practice will stop you feeling like a clumsy idiot. But knowing how to use them is one thing. Being a real pro means that you also understand chopsticks etiquette and the dos and don’ts of using them.
Despite the temptation to play with them, remember that chopsticks are eating utensils, just as a knife and fork. You would never play drums on the table with two spoons (well, you shouldn’t), point at someone with a fork, or leave a knife standing up stuck into a steak, so treat your chopsticks the same.
When taking a break, place your chopsticks neatly to the right of your plate, preferably with the tips on the provided rest and without pointing them in anyone's immediate direction. Putting chopsticks on top of your bowl or plate indicates that you are finished and the staff may whisk it away before you can enjoy that bite you were saving for last!
Chopsticks may seem extremely impractical for eating certain foods. However, there are polite ways to overcome this issue. In many Asian countries a spoon will accompany dishes that are difficult to manage with only chopsticks. And lifting a bowl to face-level and pushing rice into your mouth is both acceptable and perfectly normal in all parts of Asia with the exception of Korea. Alternatively, chopsticks can be held side by side to shovel rice from your plate. While considered impolite in the West, slurping soup and noodles, even noisily, is perfectly acceptable in Asia. It’s also quite fine to drink directly from your soup bowl.
Large chunks of food can be torn or cut apart on your plate using chopsticks, but it’s bad manners to impale a big piece of food as a way to transfer it to your mouth If no serving utensils are provided at a communal meal, turn your chopsticks around to use the clean ends when transferring food from communal dishes onto your own plate.
A few more no-nos when using chopsticks include the following:
Don’t tap your chopsticks together in the air or on a bowl to make noises (yet slurping is fine?). Don’t leave them standing vertically in a bowl, and don’t use them to gesture or point at other people or dishes, in much the same way as you wouldn’t use your knife to point at somebody. Don’t hold chopsticks in a clenched fist as you would a weapon and don’t suck sauce off the end of your sticks.
Remember not to pass food to other people using your chopsticks, as doing so resembles the practice of passing cremated bones at a funeral. Rather, put the piece of food you want to share directly onto the other person’s place (with the other end).
And if you really want to be adept at chopsticks etiquette, then here are some more tips to consider:
Particularly when eating in Japan, allow elders or senior members at the table to lift their chopsticks first. Don't pick through dishes (either communal or on your own plate) for morsels of meat or vegetables that happen to be your favourite. Also, avoid crossing your chopsticks, as it symbolises death in some cultures. If disposable chopsticks were used, place them back inside of the paper wrapper at the end of your meal and leave them to the right of your plate. Koreans use spoons to eat soups and even rice. But always put your chopsticks to the right side of your spoon when resting on the table … as the reverse is done at memorial dinners for deceased loved ones, so you could easily offend without realising it.
Now while wooden chopsticks are easier to use, as they are less slippery than the plastic or metal varieties, there’s a factor to consider when using them. Demand for disposable chopsticks far surpasses the ability to make them from wood scrap or off-cut wood. This means that an estimated 20 million mature trees are logged each year just to supply China alone with billions of throwaway chopsticks. Plastic and metal chopsticks are far more sustainable – or if you want to use wood, let them be reusable ones. And that’s not even considering the vast quantity of paper or polystyrene takeaway containers that accompany these disposable chopsticks. Quite something to consider, isn’t it?
Breakfast. What springs to mind? If you’re a Westerner, most likely you’ll have a few staple breakfast dishes – foods that you wouldn’t usually eat for your evening meal, but have the exclusive honour of being your first meal of the day. On a weekend, or when you have a little more time, you might go for the ‘Full Monty’, which will include eggs done the way you like them, bacon, sausages, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans and toast. If you’re in a rush, you’ll probably chuck back a bowl of cereal or a yoghurt, or perhaps some toast and jam. If you’re not watching your carbs, you may enjoy a continental breakfast with some muffins, croissants and other pastries, and if you’re on a health kick, fresh fruit and muesli may be your kick-start to the day.
Most of us wouldn’t think to have cereal for dinner, or a roast for breakfast, and in the West, dishes are confined to their designated meal times. Now while there are dishes that are popular for breakfast in Thailand, a local would think nothing of having a spicy curry for their morning meal. But, here are some of the most popular dishes a Thai would enjoy to start their day.
If there’s one food that immediately pops into mind as a Thai breakfast, it’s the thick rice porridge known as joke. It’s made of short-grain rice that’s boiled until it turns into a thick oatmeal-like porridge. It’s served piping hot with an egg cracked in the middle, some pieces of pork for flavouring, and garnished with slices of ginger and parsley. Joke would be the equivalent of a Western-style morning bowl of cereal, and you’ll see vendors setting up early to sell it, catching those on their way to work.
KhaotTom (rice soup) is closely related to joke, but instead of short-grain rice, normal long-grain Thai rice is used. The grains are boiled in water with flavourings, until they’re soft and floating in a ricey soup. Khao tom includes similar Thai breakfast toppings as joke, such as pork, eggs, ginger and parsley, and even seafood.
If joke is the on-the-dash cereal of Thai breakfasts, then khao neow moo ping is the energy and protein equivalent of ‘sausages and eggs’. A few satays of fatty grilled pork with a little packet of sticky rice is easy to eat on the go, and is a great way to start off a busy day in Thailand.
Those that enjoy a sugar boost for breakfast should keep their eyes and noses open for a vendor selling the Thai doughnuts called patongo. This slightly sweet blob of dough is deep-fried, forming a crunchy outside and a soft, fluffy centre. It’s served with a sweet custard dipping sauce or sweetened condensed milk. Breaded deep-fried sliced banana is also a great morning snack, and cheap too, at only about 20 baht for six big pieces. Little backed goods such as waffles with various fillings, are popular too.
Thailand has a strong Chinese heritage, so no doubt, the food has been influenced by Chinese ancestors. Dim sum dumplings are a popular breakfast food, including the steamed buns and the greasy pork dumplings.
Little banana-leaf packages of sweet, sticky rice are great on-the-go morning snacks. The rice, with a smoky flavour from being cooked on the open grill, sometimes encases banana or sweet red beans. You’ll find many different variations of this, and sometimes, the rice is cooked in bamboo too.
Eggs are served in so many ways in Thailand and very popular is an omelette, often filled with minced pork or seafood. But for a muscle-building breakfast, try kai luak, which is basically a soft-boiled egg served in a shot glass, and accompanied by a fresh cup of coffee.
From early in the morning, you’ll find vendors standing over hot coals preparing little chicken or pork satays, or various types of sausages and meat or seafood on a stick – food on a stick is the best Asian invention; no cutlery required.
If you’re after a healthy breakfast, there’s no shortage of fresh fruit vendors, who’ll present your purchase neatly chopped and in a bag with a wooden skewer used to pierce the fruit for eating. Usually only around 15 to 20 baht a portion, there’s no reason not to get your daily fruit dose.
Like the rest of the world, Thailand has fallen into the fast-food trap, and every Family Mart and 7-Eleven will sell a selection of off-the-shelf-and-into-the-microwave breakfast meals. There’ll always be an urn of boiling water so you can buy your pot of instant noodles, rice soup or joke, fill it up and walk away eating your breakfast on the go. You’ll also find grilled sandwiches that the friendly teller will pop into the toaster for you, as well as over-processed filled sandwiches, cakes and muffins. But with so many great fresh options available, such as homemade joke or some fresh fruit, there’s no need to go the fast food route, as the fresh options are equally as fast to be served.
No matter what you have for breakfast, remember that it’s the most important meal of the day, so having a nourishing meal in the morning can start your day on a good note. Thais will seldom skip breakfast (or any meal for that matter), and they’re one of the happiest nations in the world. Is it because they have a hearty breakfast? Who knows. Could be. But it seems to work for them, so grab a bowl of joke, some Thai doughnuts or a couple of satays and start your day on a delicious note.
Coconuts play a big part of life on Samui. Find out how to enjoy them best.
What’s the first thing you think about when mentally picturing a tropical island? Most will answer with a beach scene complete with white sand and coconut palms. Well in that case, Samui fits the picture, particularly with the coconut palms.
Even though the palm tree has become synonymous as a symbol of Samui, it was only fairly recently that the coconut became the largest export from the island. Although there were always coconuts, over the years, Samui farmers gradually turned the island into a substantial coconut plantation.
As the island’s industry grew, so did the local farmers’ income, as they were able to negotiate a good price for their crops. Their increased wealth didn’t go unnoticed by people from the mainland and so Samui’s native farmers were joined by people from other areas of Thailand who also wanted to benefit from the island’s growing economy. The legacy of the islands early coconut farmers is still apparent today as Samui proudly boasts more varieties of coconuts than anywhere else in the world. A few years ago, the island’s coconut farmers suffered a knock as hundreds of trees started to lose their fronds and die off. After much research, it was discovered that a non-indigenous beetle was the culprit, brought in from South Africa accidentally when resort owners ordered plants from there. The only solution was to cut down the affected trees and kill the beetles. The agricultural department worked hard at reviving the industry that suffered a 20% drop in production from the beetle infection. They looked at how tourism could help, and visitors were invited to donate 300 baht to plant a new palm and have their name on a tree. You can still see patches of tall trunks with no frond heads attached, but the industry seems to have survived the setback.
Until recently, coconut production was Samui’s main industry, and is now second only to tourism. Every month, Samui supplies Bangkok with over two million coconuts. These are harvested from the approximately three million trees that grow on the island, each of which produces around 70 coconuts per year. That’s a lot of nuts!
The coconut tree and its products play a big part of island life and there’s more to this tree than just swinging in a hammock between two sturdy palms. And on that note, best to check that there are not coconuts directly above your head when stringing up your hammock. A blow from a falling nut can kill. Apparently, 150 people worldwide suffer this fate annually. Although Samui is one of Thailand’s tourist hot spots, what makes it different to the larger island of Phuket is the fact that there is a written rule that no building may be taller than the nearest coconut palm. Now while the palms can grow quite tall, this law still keeps the skyscrapers away. And although you may see four-storey hotels, most resorts remain the bungalow or villa type.
Coconut harvesting monkeys, specifically pig-tailed Macaques, are trained on the mainland, in a special school in Surat Thani. The school is family run, and has been in operation since 1957. Their training methods are humane and trainers develop a strong bond with their scholars. Farmers enroll their monkeys in a 3-5 month course, which includes training on how to twist and bite a coconut loose, how to tell a ripe from an unripe nut, as well as how to load a pickup. These monkeys are generally well looked after by their owners, as they generate a good income and are therefore a valuable asset. A well-trained monkey can harvest 1000 coconuts a day, whereas a human with a long stick and loop can probably only do about 100. These monkeys are smart, another reason why they are generally well cared for. In fact, local and international newspapers reported an incident in March 2009, when a coconut-picking monkey killed his owner by throwing a well-aimed coconut at his head, killing him instantly. Witnesses say the man didn’t treat the monkey well, and was not appreciative of his efforts to retrieve the prized fruit. Let that be a lesson learnt!
So how can you enjoy your freshly monkey-harvested young coconut, or maprao, as it is called in Thai? There’s nothing more refreshing, or no better hangover cure than an ice-cold maprao, lid cut open, and soft white flesh to scoop out after drinking the coconut water. A coconut is sterile on opening and is full of electrolytes. In fact, it is so pure that it was used in WW2 and the Vietnam War as emergency plasma replacement when none was available.
Coconut milk, made from crushing the flesh and juice, is used at the base for all Thai curries, as well as some soups, blending well with spices and the heat of chillies. And coconut is used for substance and flavour in most Thai sweets and desserts, including the strange gelatinous candy known as ‘garamear’ that is sold at Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks (sometimes known as the rude rocks) and at the ferry terminals. Rich, creamy, homemade coconut ice cream is available from a vendor at the viewpoint between Chaweng and Lamai as well as at the walking street markets. It’s served in half a coconut. Have it plain, or add a topping, including a few unusual varieties, all for an affordable 40 baht.
Many resorts use palm fronds to roof their salas, beach bars and even bungalows, and palms provide shade and relief from the tropical heat, but don’t forget those falling coconuts as you laze under a tree with a book! Most resorts de-fruit their trees to avoid such accidents, and thus keep the monkeys in business too. Coconut wood is hard and is often used in building. The fibres and husks are used for ropes, mattress stuffing and also as fire starters. The shells are used for ornaments and utensils, meaning that no part of a tree is ever wasted. Coconut-wood salad servers would usually be well-received as a gift or souvenir.
Cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is sold at Big Buddha, the rude rocks and markets, for around 100 baht for 100ml. Ever wondered why most Thai women have such beautiful skin and hair? Well, they use coconut oil as a hair mask as well as a skin moisturiser. It’s excellent for treating scar tissue and blemishes, and good for mosquito bites too. Try some on salads and in cooking. It’s good for the immune system, good for cancer prevention, and also heart disease and other degenerative conditions.
Driving around Samui, particularly the less-developed south and west coasts, and you’ll see towering piles of coconuts ready for processing. If you pass a pickup piled high with nuts, look to see if there’s a monkey sitting on top of the pile. Leave the island on the car ferries, and many of the vehicles you’ll see waiting in the queues are pickups with coconuts ready to deliver to the mainland.
It is easy to see why the coconut is known as ‘the tree of life’ as it has so many uses, providing for the most basic needs of both food and shelter. And to top it, it’s not often that someone so healthy can be delicious too!
Our training centre is a few steps from the beautiful Choeng Mon Beach. Here's a little description on what to expect. Those who have done the course will agree that it's a spectacular little beach and village.
Choeng Mon Beach at the far north-eastern tip of the island has a lot to offer beach lovers.
Oh the choice! When it comes to beaches, Samui has enough options to please all manner of beachgoers. From party lovers looking for live DJs and a festive vibe, to those looking for solitude and two palm trees to swing their hammock. So which is Choeng Mon then? Well, neither actually. It’s somewhere in the middle, which is probably why it’s so loved by locals, expat families and tourists who’ve discovered the secret. It’s not as busy as nearby Chaweng Beach, yet it’s not isolated, so there’s plenty to see and do, and it’s easy to grab a bite or a drink when the need arises.
A rocky stretch of coast backed by steep cliffs divides Samui's northern and eastern beaches. Choeng Mon Beach is located in a deep bay that cuts into the rocky coastline, its soft sands considered some of the island's finest and the shallow waters ideal for year-round swimming and beach activities. The beach here is lined with several resorts, both high end as well as mid-range bungalow types. And sun beds are in abundance, serviced by restaurants and resorts, so all you need to bring is a good book, towel and sunscreen. Chaweng, the island’s most developed tourist area, is around five kilometres south of Choeng Mon, reached via a long hilly stretch of cliffs and bays.
But it would be easy to drive right past Choeng Mon’s main beach without knowing this wonderful swimming beach even exists, as it is hidden behind resort facades, shops and restaurants. It can be accessed via most of the resorts, or a parking area and thoroughfare halfway along the beach.
Choeng Mon’s main beach is one of the most popular with expat families, as the bay is protected and good for swimming. Koh Farn, a small island that’s little more than a rocky outcrop, sits just off shore, and can be reached by foot at low tide, making for interesting exploration. At low tide, the water retreats quite far to expose rocks and pools at this eastern end of the beach, so if you’d prefer a deep-water swim, move a couple of hundred metres west. You'll find kayaks to rent and beach bats for sale too. And if all that kayaking and playing beach bats has caused your muscles to ache, not to worry, as there are several massage salas scattered along the beachfront, where a massage will only make your wallet slightly lighter, starting at around 250 baht for an hour. If you prefer a massage in air-conditioned surroundings, pop up back to the main road, where a number of massage parlours are dotted along the road.
A long time favourite vendor on Choeng Mon beach is Mr Coppi. He can be seen from about 11:00am each day, setting up his beach kitchen, and drawing the crowds for his grilled buttered corn on the cob, grilled chicken with sticky rice and fresh fruit. His quaint blackboard sign reads, “Mr Coppi’s secret corn on the cob, good style recipe. Nice to meet you. Khob khoon krab”. He’s always smiling and recognises his regular customers. You’re guaranteed to burn your mouth on the corn, as it smells so good, you’ll not be able to wait for it to cool.
If you like shopping from the comfort of your sun-lounger, there are a few friendly vendors parading their wares. They’re not a pushy bunch and if you tell them you’re not shopping today, you’ll get left in peace to read your book and sip on your coconut. Bikinis, sarongs, beachwear, silk bedcovers and ornaments carved from coconut wood are a few of the items on sale. And if you fancy something to cool you in the heat, you won’t have to wait long for an ice-cream seller to pass by.
The village of Choeng Mon is quite small, but with a good selection of shops, restaurants and bars lining the area backing the main beach. Girlie bars are not allowed in Choeng Mon, adding to its popularity with families. Aside from the fancier eateries, you'll find a good selection of cheap roadside cafes too. The village hosts a small 'walking street market' on Wednesday evenings, where you'll find a good selection of street food on offer.
But if you’d prefer to dine on the beach in the evening, the resorts and restaurants that line the shore all set out tables on the beach. As the sun sets, sun-loungers are replaced with tables, and lanterns and fairy lights add to the effect. There’s something special about being able to kick off your shoes and dig your toes into the sand while dining by candlelight on the beach.
Right then. Off to the beach, inspired by this quote, “Our memories of the ocean will linger on, long after our footprints in the sand are gone.” – anonymous.
I know a lot of things. I know where rain and babies come from, I know where the saying "caught my eye" comes from. I even know the two invisible colors of the rainbow. And I can almost quote "The Cat in the Hat" off by heart. But nothing I thought I knew about Thailand could ever prepare me...
Before I came to Thailand, I made sure I read everything there is to know. I paged through books, looked at websites, read blogs, made notes on napkins when talking to people and I even went to the local library (in Jeffreys Bay - no help at all). By the time my bags were packed, so was my brain. Full of wonderfully clever things I "knew" about my destination. Or so I thought...
First of all the heat. Yes it is hot. I knew that, because I read it in a book and people told me. And yes, it is even hot before, during and after a thunderstorm. It is not the heat that I was used to. The kind of heat where you can jump into the pool or the sea, splash about for a bit and then come out all cooled down and ready to take on the rest of the day? No. This heat is the kind of heat that when you jump into the pool or the sea, you immediately wish for an ice cold rum cocktail or a mojito. And when you get out, you wish for another one. But, on the upside, before you turn into a rum cocktail drinking alcoholic, you do get acclimatized and you stop drinking ice cold rum cocktails and mojitos for breakfast. Except maybe on weekends.
I am a fussy eater. I swell up if I eat anything that lives under water, and if it used to live on land and had more than four legs or if it had a name like "Fluffy", "Fido" or "Kitty", I also won't eat it. But somewhere in my brain was a little bit of data stored on what to eat and what not to eat. Chicken, pork and noodles. Oh, and fruit. Lots and lots of fruit and vegetables. It all sounds very romantic to relax on the beach with a fresh coconut or a pineapple, but you do get hungry for food!! So, you jump on your scooter and drive to a fresh food market, because you want to "experience the local way" of doing things. After two minutes of scootering along and being killed seventeen times by a Toyota Fortuner, a taxi or a 4 year old on a motorbike, you arrive at the market, you vomit a little bit from the smell, and then you enter the big circus tent. And then you walk out again, because frog, tortoise and fly invested "beef" is not on my menu. Luckily there is a 711 down the road (any road) so you have Lays, noodles and Oreos for lunch. And a mojito. But not to worry, dinner will be better, because there is a lovely little kitchen shop right across the street. So you have another mojito, take a cold shower, and leave your house. Then the power goes out... But, no worries, they cook on open fires and with gas, so you will be fed. Something. Only problem is, the menu is hand written in Thai, with no pictures, no English, and no prices (at least it looked like a menu, it may have been an arrest warrant). Eventually, in very broken Thai, hand gestures, drawings, and a google image on your phone of a mango, you do get fed. Mango salad. With prawns. You swear that tomorrow you will learn to speak Thai fluently or else you might die of hunger or allergies.
And the list goes on... Thai-time drives you nuts, because continents move faster than Thai-time. Taxi drivers taking you for a ride (not just literally) because they think you are lost and clueless so they can drive you round your block nine times before you tell them to stop. Shopkeepers trying to double charge you on everything and then tell you it is "not vat included price". The mosquitoes that are the size of small cars, the potholes and the amount of pink cars on the road.
But... After a few days, you learn to deal with the heat. You learn the names of certain dishes that you like. You realize that the lady standing in the sun all day selling the sweetest pineapples and watermelon always wears a smile. That when you wait for everything that's happening in Thai-time, you can actually stop and look at the beauty everywhere around you. And the lady at the kitchen shop with the hand written menu, actually cooks your food with a smile, in her own kitchen at her own house, where you are welcome. That the 6year old that nearly knocked you from your scooter was on his way to school. To learn, because he wants to. And all the frogs and the tortoises at the smelly market will actually not be turned into dinner, most of them are bought and then released into the wild according to a Buddhist tradition after a certain offering ritual. And that "Fluffy", "Fido" and "Kitty" are better looked after than most children in Northern Africa, so they are also not going in a pot or on a grill. The taxi driver and the shopkeeper see you as their next meal ticket, they are not trying to "rob" you. And you learn how to negotiate with them (in their own language!!!). The mosquitoes can be tamed with Citron oil in a burner and they turn out to have nice personalities, and the potholes means you are actually privileged enough to have a road to drive on. And pink is actually a pretty color.
Then you realize as you drive along on your scooter, that this place is beautiful. The people are beautiful. The rich and cultural ways of the Thai start to over power you. So you stop at an amazing beach, with a beautiful sunset on the way, an ice cold rum cocktail in your hand and a massage booked in (maybe) 30minutes, and you realize, "I still have so much to learn. No book or blog can teach me all I have to know about this place". And in the end you know, life is not to bad after all...
Samui TEFL Blog