Get Your Elastic Waistbands Ready: Dine Around Seattle is Back

From Sunday through Thursday, March 2-27, you can score a three-course prix fix for $30 at 58 Seattle restaurants. At some of them you can even score a three-course lunch for $15.  

The restaurant selection includes icons like Ray’s Boathouse and Barking Frog; cult favorites Skillet Diner and Nishino’s and the always full to bursting Toulouse Petit and Peso’s. I’ve taken advantage of Dine Around myself before and through it discovered gems like Stumbling Goat Bistro and Eva. This time around Hunger 2.0 and La Bête look intriguing, but with so many options it’s hard to choose.

For more info. click here. Give it a whirl and please let me know which places you recommend, I’m always on the lookout for a new place to nosh.

Final Reflections on Thailand

The Golden Buddha

On our last day in Thailand, Jules and I set out to find Wat Traimit, the Temple of the Golden Buddha which holds a nearly ten-foot tall Buddha made of solid gold  - 5.5 tons to be exact – and valued at more than $18 million.

The Buddha was, at first glance, nothing more than, well, shiny. But somewhere in the midst of my circling path around it, it gave me an unexpected moment of revelation. Its impact came not from its looks, but from what it revealed about the Thai people.

Thailand is a country that while having its share of extreme wealth – someone must be buying those $2.2 million riverfront condos in Bangkok – is predominantly working poor. While we were in Thailand a minimum wage law was about to be enacted. This new law, which many decried as being the inevitable downfall of the Thai labor market, was 300 Baht – a mere ten U.S. dollars per day. And while the cost of living is low, the cheapest meals we found were still in the $2.50-$5.00 range per meal (presumably cooking at home would be a bit less).

And yet, this is a culture that despite having little to no government social safety net, takes care of its elders, feeds the large population of Buddhist monks daily, usually sends one of the family sons to be a monk for a period of at least a few years – to increase the son’s and the parents’ good karma – and lavishly and regularly supports its temples. And while a casual traveler could never see into the heart of the strangers she meets, the people on the whole seemed to lack that perpetual dissatisfaction many Americans, even successful ones, radiate.

Is it the Buddhist teachings? Or is it a value passed down through the generations? And what can we learn from this to become more content with our own lives?

Biking Through Time in Sukhothai: One World Heritage Site You Must See Before You Die

Boarding one of Bangkok Air’s two daily one hour and fifteen minute flights from Bangkok to Sukhothai transports you from a bustling 21st century city to the 13th century.

The Sukhothai Historical Park, one of Thailand’s World Heritage sites, and I suspect the inspiration for Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom (although the movie was “set” in Sri Lanka), is composed of ruins from the mid-13th to mid-14th century Sukhothai Kingdom, the golden era of Thailand.

And by ruins I mean, 28 square miles of Wats, grassed-in moats, shrines, lotus ponds, and one seriously humbling 50-foot tall Buddha.

Imagining what these sites looked like at their prime is jaw dropping. Since words truly are insufficient ….

Wat Si Chum
One of the many Buddhas at Wat Mahathat
The Khmer-style Towers of Wat Si Sawai
Wat Mahathat

This type of awe-inspiring majesty speaks for itself so here are my top 3 non-obvious discoveries in Sukhothai:

  • Random shrines. There is something comforting and thought-provoking about finding these humble shrines amidst the majestic ruins.

  • Concentrated ginger drink: sweet, fiery, a metabolism stimulant and stomach soother. Even though it’s a hot drink, it restored me in a flash after biking for four+ hours in 102-degree heat. I discovered this health drink at a little restaurant across the main road from the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum. Back in Bangkok, I found a decent replica in instant form at the Tesco and bought two boxes. I may cry when I run out.

  • Tharaburi Resort in old Sukhothai. Gorgeous, reasonable, and a short bike ride from the ruins. Free internet and breakfast included in your sub-$100 per night rate. Jules and I spent the afternoon in the pool drinking the cheapest hotel beers we found in Thailand.
Tharaburi Resort

Sukhothai made me rethink my travel bucket list and open it up for further research, as I’m sure there are other places like Sukhothai that I don’t even know about yet.

What places are on your travel bucket list?

Playing with Elephants in Chiang Mai

Hong

Elephants are almost my favorite animal, second only to giraffes or giraffalas as my lil sis Kate and I like to call them. So when a friend told me about the Maetamann Rafting and Elephant Camp in the mountains of Chiang Mai it became my one “must do” in Thailand.

When we arrived in Chiang Mai we lucked into a taxi driver, “O”, who spoke excellent English and very conveniently could be hired as a driver for the day. After reviewing dozens of recommendations, we booked him (at a rate of 1000 Baht, approximately $34 for the day) to take us out into the mountains the very next day to the Maetamann elephant camp.

We met O at our hotel at 9:00 a.m. and plotted our course for the day. We decided to start with a little shopping and aimed to arrive at Maetamann at 11:30 a.m.

Our first stop was the Thai Silk Factory where we were able to see the silk making process in action from larvae to scarf.

Silk Worms

We also spent quite a bit of time roaming through the shop and I picked up a bright red woven silk scarf to take home to my mom.

Next stop, the Sa Paper & Umbrella Handicraft Centre to see how paper parasols are made and stock up on necessities – fans.

The parasols were gorgeous and I was sorely tempted to bring one home – but really, what was I going to do with it and how would I get it in my luggage? I settled on a fan for myself, a handmade leather bracelet, and a little painting of an elephant on my camera case by one of the parasol/fan painters.

Gifts in hand it was time to see the elephants.

When we arrived at Maetamann there was a “show” in progress. After passing a momma and baby elephant who greeted us by sniffing us with his trunk, we walked down to the ring. The elephants were engaged in tricks that were much to Dumbo like for us – pyramid of pachyderms anyone? Jules headed off to wander amongst the non-performing elephants. I wandered to the end of the ring to attempt a chat with the mahouts; the elephant caretakers.

The friend who recommended Maetamann told me the elephants could paint pictures. This claim was confirmed by our driver and by the paintings offered for purchase at a little shop at Le Meridien in Phuket. The elephants at Maetamann could even paint pictures of elephants. Through some smiling, pointing and bumbling I learned that the elephants would paint at the end of the show. With my back firmly toward the ring, I petted, talked to and otherwise hung out with Hong, an eleven-year-old female elephant until she was led into the ring.

Hong can paint! My elephant can paint!

Hong in Action

I want that picture.

Hong’s picture wasn’t the best, but I didn’t care, she was my elephant and her painting would be mine. As her mahout headed out of the ring with Hong’s easel and painting, I squared my shoulders and cut through the ring in a direct path to intersect him. The French people filling the ring that fell in my path were cut around with an efficiency perfected during years navigating through summer packs of people at Disneyland. I hit the ring exit just as Hong’s painting did. With pointing, I indicated my intention to buy. The mahout looked at me like I might be mad and handed me off to an English speaking Thai woman. She confirmed that I wanted Hong’s painting, “That one? … That one?”  Really? Her expression seemed to say, while she glanced at the better painted pictures by other elephants. Yes. But she eventually took my money – 1000 Baht the same amount we were paying our driver, for the day.  I could pick it up in the shop later.

American Pushiness Prevails: The Painting is Mine!

Strolling back to Julie with the receipt for my prize in hand, I realized with amusement mingled with horror that I had become the stereotypical pushy American. But then again, the painting was mine. We hung out with Hong some more and then headed off to purchase our tickets for river rafting, elephant riding and the inevitable buffet lunch (1500 Baht, approximately $50).

Lunch was surprisingly decent but we made short work of it because we wanted to beat the pack to the elephant rides. O, who is buddies with everyone at Maetamann it seems, got us to the front of the line, where we greeted our elephant and “boarded.”

Riding an elephant is a bit unsettling. First, the sensation is very different and when you get to an incline there is a real fear of pitching out and over – thank goodness for lap bars. Second, there’s the concern, “Am I hurting the elephant?” “Is it wrong to ride an elephant?” I felt fairly confident that we weren’t hurting her and became o.k. with the riding aspect. These elephants are treated extremely well and we fed ours, pet her and let her snuffle around us with her trunk to convey how much we appreciated her toting us around.

I can’t say the same for the guy in the elephant behind us. No treats, no pets, nothing. Jules decided we should compensate for him and we divvied up our sugarcane and banana stash between our elephant and the elephant behind as we plodded along.

Bump. We felt a mild jolt as the elephant behind bumped ours and then a scruffy trunk flopped itself between us and began a search for treats. We burst out laughing and the last of the bananas went to the interloper. I’m not sure the mahouts were as amused as we were.

Elephant ride over, we were taken back to the start by ox cart and then it was time to raft down the river. O cut us to the front of the line once again, such a bonus of having a hooked up driver, and we sprawled out on the raft ready for a relaxing float down the river.

Our guide decided we were well equipped to man the boat while he went for a swim and entertained the French filled boat behind us by periodically snatching at them and yelling “crocodile!” So Jules and I took turns pretending to row the boat gondolier style with poles, although I’m pretty sure the gentlemen rowing in the rear was doing all the work and steering. When we grew tired of posing as gondoliers we deserted our post and relaxed on the raft, taking in the jungle scenery, the elephants bathing and the countryside passing us by. Paradise.

The Ultimate Detox

Three days in a resort in Phuket is unimaginably long (beaches and exploited but adorable baby elephants aside).  On Day Two, I decided to treat the resort as a health spa and indulge in a little tune-up.

I started my day with a stretchy abs class: forty minutes of deep stretching and balance moves -including several recognizable yoga poses – followed by twenty minutes of intense ab work. I topped that off with thirty-five minutes on the treadmill and reviewed the spa menu.

The usual relaxing massages and facials were tempting, but I was intrigued by the virtuous sounding “Ultimate Detox”; a one hour and fifty minute package consisting of a body and skin detox and lymphatic massage. I was going for a tune-up after all, and this promised the reduction or at least reshaping of “hard fat” and cellulite, and with exercise (check), a possible reduction in any water weight I hadn’t yet sweated out in the 90 degree + high humidity heat.

I presented myself for my detox and after a thimble of lychee juice and a hot towel, was lead to a room featuring a toilet cubicle, shower/steam cubicle, bathtub and treatment table. I was asked to strip and put on meshy disposable boy shorts and a shower cap – sexy. Not wanting to hang out with my breasts out, I put on the robe and was immediately asked to take it off when the aesthetician returned and to lie face up on the table.

Now I am by nature a fairly modest and overly body-conscious person, but I’ve spent enough time getting spa treatments to know to check modesty at the door. I couldn’t, however, push out of my mind the thought that the tiny Thai woman detoxing me must feel like she had just been asked to massage and exfoliate a Beluga whale.

Once face up on the table, I was asked to sit, and a hot clay mask was applied to my back, butt, all the way to the “cleavage”, and arms. Then I lay back down and the mask was applied everywhere else, and I mean everywhere except my lady business.

Once I was covered in clay, a thin sheet was placed over me and I was wrapped like a sushi roll in gift-basket quality plastic wrap. Another sheet was then placed over me and a table-length heating pad – thank goodness for air conditioning. The aesthetician then pressed down on every part of my body, making the sheets adhere to my body via the glue-like clay. This press-down procedure was repeated three or four times while I was encased.

I was released from my shrink-wrap prison thirty minutes later, when rivulets of sweat began running down my face. The clay masque was sponged off and then the exfoliating scrub was put on. Grit was put in places it just doesn’t belong.

After exfoliation, I was ordered to strip out of my disposable panties and hit the showers. I did and then was basically told to drop the towel and get on the table. I tried to get on the table with my towel wrapped around me and then unwrap and lay down at the same time. Of course, I got trapped in my towel and my attempts to place myself discreetly and gracelessly on the table turned into a limbs akimbo, tits out unveiling. Classy.

For the rest of the treatment I was massaged while being lubed up with lotion – everywhere except a porn star’s landing strip.  The massage was an interesting combination of relaxation and abuse; nice soft, relaxing strokes and then BOOM! chopping, beating motions. I’m starting to think there’s a belief in Thailand that if the massage doesn’t hurt it isn’t working. Little did I know what I had coming.

Lymphatic Massage

Wikipedia describes manual lymphatic drainage as “a type of gentle massage which is intended by proponents to encourage the natural circulation of the lymph through the body.” Like hell.

Naked once again, without even disposable panties to keep me warm, face down on a table covered by a light sheet, the “massage” began. Strokes up and down my lower legs with light pressure, then more pressure, faster and faster and harder and harder until thrashing, pounding movements were raining down on my lower legs. My calves are pretty tough, so it was tolerable… barely.

And then she reached my inner thighs. As I was poked and prodded at a racing pace until I felt that the masseuse’s fingers just might reach bone, I made silent screaming faces into the headrest. It helped. I mentally counted off the areas she had left to beat, realizing with horror I would not be able to both maintain my dignity and silently scream and grimace once I was face up.

It was time to turn over. I attempted to maintain an impassive face while gritting my teeth.  Poke, poke, poke, pound, pound, pound, thrash, thrash, thrash. Firm but gentle face manipulation and then… it was over.

“How do you feel?” the masseuse asked. While thinking “Mugged,” I smiled and weakly uttered a “great, thanks.”

But was it worth it? I noticed zero slimming or cellulite appearance reducing results. I did acquire quite a few colorful bruises in interesting and not so interesting places. Now that’s hot.

Molotov Cocktails, Tiger Bars, & Thai “Girlfriends”

Le Meridien was an oasis of tennis, fitness courses and beachside cocktails.

Yet, after two days and nights we needed to venture outside its gates. It was beginning to feel too Dirty Dancing in its isolation and we needed to dodge the nightly entertainment before a cute little Thai girl with limited vocal range attempted I Will Always Love You once again.

Patong was a hop, skip and short taxi ride away and was rumored to have a decent restaurant or two so we hustled into a cab and made a break for it.

Along the road we took note of the local gasoline delivery system – bottles for sale that would have made lovely Molotov cocktails. And then we reached Patong.

Cocktails anyone?

I am so grateful we didn’t stay in Patong.

Patong is Reno on the beach without the “glamour.” The streets are packed with flea market stalls selling touristy Chang tees, beer cozies, cheap swimsuits and fake watches and handbags. The beach was a mass of drunken frat boys and the like and the bar-lined streets were packed with Thai “girlfriends.”

We were constantly solicited – by men – to attend “ping pong shows.” By the fifth such solicitation my simmering outrage was edging toward a full boil and I barely held back my urge to shout “Why would I want to watch a show featuring an exploited woman shooting ping pongs out her pun tang?!” Instead, I shot them a look of contempt strong enough to make them scuttle away.

Dazed and appalled, we headed to a corner bar for a drink and as it turns out to watch the Thai “girlfriends” in action.

I knew about the sex trade and human trafficking that exists in Thailand and its neighboring countries long before setting my feet upon its shores. I’ve supported the Somaly Mam Foundation to aid in the fight against sex slavery for several years and have read and highly recommend her book The Road of Lost Innocence. I was not naïve. I was however, completely unprepared to see the problem close-up, especially after having spent several days in Bangkok and only having once glimpsed what was undoubtedly a “house of ill repute.”

Pursuant to the literature on the topic, easily found in the tour guides of Thailand, the “girlfriend” scenario works like this. Girls staff bars, either employed by the bar or freelance, as “customers” in tourist areas and the like. The girls chat up single men, playing bar games like Connect Four and something involving nails and a hammer (no double entendre there) to break the ice. The girls then try to convince the men to take them out on the town, buy them things and give them money. In return the men are guaranteed a home run on the first date, referred to as a “happy ending.” The girls are generally in the business because they are poor, sometimes with children and a deadbeat husband to support, sometimes with parents and siblings in more rural areas who need the income made by the girls to keep from starving, sometimes just not skilled enough to find other work. The money is good and sometimes the girlfriends can even become wives of the fareng (foreigners). But this ain’t no Pretty Woman.

The business flourished thanks to the presence of U.S. Troops during the Vietnam War (as if our contribution to the region of KFC and McDonald’s wasn’t bad enough) and a steady stream of Australian and other foreign men even today. The scope of the business is breathtaking, and not in a good way. For example, the Tiger Bar, takes up no less than four square blocks. You walk in and then if you start to wander back you find that it just keeps going and going and going. It would take a packed downtown Vegas casino to fill the Tiger Bar on the ground floor alone.

It keeps going and going and going….

Some of the clientele is what you would expect but some is absolutely baffling. We saw good looking twenty-something men touring the town with their Thai girlfriend in tow. These men easily could have found ladies of their own land willing to engage in the infamous hostel hook-up (yet another reason I’ve never stayed at hostels), yet chose to buy a Thai girl instead. As an independent American woman I was nauseous, pretty much constantly. I wanted to ask these women and girls if they really wanted to be doing this. If they didn’t have another option. If they were at least being treated ok. I wanted to shame the men for buying women.

But mostly, I just don’t want to still live in a world where women need to sexually sell themselves to get by.

Bruised and in Danger of Losing My Pants: An Introduction to Thai Massage

On our first day in Bangkok my friend, Jules, and I headed off to find Wat Pho to marvel at the 46 meter long and 15 meter high reclining Buddha and work out some of that too-many-hours-in-coach plane fatigue with a traditional Thai massage.

But first, some lunch. We stopped at the first place packed with locals – Coconut Palm – and ordered up fish cakes to start, a Thai style salad for Jules and chicken phad thai for not-ready-to-be-adventurous-yet me. The food was fresh, flavorful, spicy, but not too spicy for gringas with a 3 out of 5 stars state-side spice ordering habit and under $10 for two people, with two beers.

Fish Cakes at Coconut Palm

Satiated, we went in search of Wat Pho. After getting lost once or twice (the tourist maps are sooo bad a cartographer who bothered to actually include all of the streets could make a fortune), being told by a tuk-tuk driver that the Wat wasn’t open for just enough time for him to give us a two-hour city tour at a ridiculously low price (a scam all tourists are warned of) we arrived – and it was open.

After purchasing our ticket and noting the number of people violating Wat dress codes – FYI certain Russian tourist whose sleazy boyfriend was blatantly checking us out, tank tops and short shorts are not appropriate, especially when your bra strap is visible and your tits are hanging out – while we “glistened” profusely in respectful long sleeve tops and long pants/skirts, we made our way to the reclining Buddha.

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho

It’s impossible to convey the magnitude and magnificence of this Buddha through photos or words. Its feet alone are taller than the tallest NBA player and are inlaid with 108 – yes, 108 – mother-of-pearl inlays depicting different auspicious characteristics of a Buddha.  Its expression can be interpreted as serene, mysterious, or to some inappropriate husbands who shall remain nameless, in the process of being “satisfied.” But it is the murals on the walls, the structure of the reclining Buddha’s shelter, and the details of the Buddha itself that elevate it from a big Buddha to an awe-worthy artistic achievement.

The Reclining Buddha’s Inlaid Feet

Wat Pho is not just about the reclining Buddha, however. Wander the Wat grounds and you will quickly stumble upon courtyards filled with shiny, sparkling Buddhas and wry sculptures that look as full as you feel.

So full!

Continue on a bit and air conditioned massage pavilions filled with massage students willing to massage and stretch you for only 450 Baht (about $15) await. Tired from the plane trip and never having experienced a Thai massage before, the pavilion beckoned.

After sipping complimentary flavored water while waiting my turn, I was led to a changing room and given loose pants to put on. My tank top and long sleeve top could remain (though I quickly ditched the long sleeve top that was sticking to me). Shoes off, pants off, massage pants pulled up and … “Wait, these don’t have a tie.” Massage pants taken off, feverish search for a tie, a button, something to keep these size 20 pants onto my size 6 hips. Nothing.

I pulled the pants back on, and discovered that my tank top was tight and sweaty enough to hold the pants in place if I pulled it over them. Sexy. With visions of a pants-falling, thong-flashing disaster imminent, I headed out of the changing room and to the triple king-size massage futon that I would share with two others and three masseurs. And then the beating began.

Thai massage is considered traditional Thai medicine and is supposed to be therapeutic more than relaxing. In fact, I don’t think relaxation is even factored into the process, although there are short moments of relaxation before a toe or elbow pummels you into flinching awareness. In a nutshell, its purpose is similar to acupuncture or acupressure in that pressure is placed along various points in an effort to untrap air or energy that isn’t flowing as it should. In addition, masseurs pull, push and stretch you into yoga-positions and positions never contemplated in nature. Toes and fingers are cracked, backs are cracked, and you are stretched to the limits of your flexibility and beyond. By the end of the one-hour pleasure and pain session, the tension was gone from my body, areas were cracked that I didn’t know could be cracked and bruises were surfacing on my anemic and thus, bruise-prone body. Alarmingly, I was no longer glistening and in danger of losing my now no-longer-affixed-by-sweat pants.

I held up my pants as I awkwardly hobble-walked to the changing room and noticed all the people around me who had cleverly rolled or knotted their pants into stay-up position. Why didn’t I think of that?

Bustling Bangkok

Fav Transport in Bangkok – The Chao Praya Express

After twenty hours of travel, Jules and I arrived in Bangkok around midnight – a perfect way to beat Bangkok’s highway congestion. After a mere four hours of sleep, we inexplicably were awake. Bangkok was waiting.

We started the morning with a short walk from our hotel (the Royal Orchid Sheraton) to the Mandarin Oriental for a little luxury in the form of breakfast on the terrace overlooking the Chao Praya River. We skipped the usual bacon, eggs, and pancakes in favor of a Thai Omelet and discovered it was basically a frittata filled with tomatoes, onions and minced pork, accompanied with jasmine rice and a cooked tomato. We left no crumb behind and washed it all down with hot tea, even though at 8:00 a.m. it was already in the humid high 80s. Time to explore.

We stopped by the concierge for a map and some information on the Chao Praya Express – a public boat system that runs boats up and down the Chao Praya River making stops at designated stations; in other words, a water bus. At 15 Baht per person per ride (approximately $0.50), with cooling river breezes, the Chao Praya Express quickly became our favorite form of transport.

We left the Chao Praya Express at stop no. 8 and headed to the Grand Palace complex which contains the royal residence and throne halls, numerous government office buildings and is home of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) and monastery. The Grand Palace compound is surrounded by imposing walls and is 218,000 square meters in size. It was built in 1782 after King Rama I ascended to the throne.

The Grand Palace Complex

Upon entering, the path directed us straight to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, not that we realized that at the time. After surveying the terraces and getting snap happy with our cameras, we took off our shoes, stashed them in our bags and entered the Temple. Blinded with gold and other shiny objects I took in the hordes of faithful in the mermaid position on the floor. We exited the building and looked at the complex map.

After studying the map, I told Julie I wanted to see the Emerald Buddha before we explored other areas of the compound. “It’s supposed to be right near us. Actually, I think it’s supposed to be right in here.” Jules gave me a look.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

I hunted around the Temple building to see if there was another entrance or shrine we had missed. I finally decided to go back in. Jules stayed outside. Shoes off and re-stashed in my bag, I again entered the Temple. This time I forced myself to focus and not be distracted by shiny objects. And there it was, perched up high, much smaller than expected; it was directly in front of all the prostrate praying people. Like a trout, distracted by shiny objects, I completely failed to see it the first time.

Amused by my own obliviousness, we moved on to examine many of the murals in the compound and discovered an early peeping tom.

Peeper!

Just look at that lascivious expression.

Later, in the Royal Thai Decorations and Coins Pavilion, we discovered the Emerald Buddha has a wardrobe. Three outfits, one for each season – summer, cold and winter; the latter outfit consisting of a golden crochet-like shawl. As blasphemous thoughts of dress-up Buddha flashed through my mind, we exited the compound and headed off to find Wat Pho.