Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Mapmaking 101

I am totally caught up in a new passion, map making. I suppose I shouldn't say map making — it's more like map contributing, but whatever you call it I'm having great fun. I'm so preoccupied I can barely keep up with emails and haven't looked at Facebook for days it seems. It does take a lot of time to do this right but I happen to have a lot of time to spare — it's the perfect pastime for a geeky map lover like me.

I've written before about my penchant for making GPS traces of my travels. Since buying a Garmin GPS receiver a few years ago I've recorded tracks for every trip I've made, every hike, every motorcycle and bicycle ride, every walk in Europe, Fiji, Africa and S.E. Asia. A "track" is basically a recording made by your GPS of your position, expressed as latitude and longitude coordinates, at a certain time. A series of these time/position values represent a "track" or path on the earth's surface.

If you think about what the GPS is doing, how much serious data processing is taking place while walking or riding along, it is a truly an astounding piece of equipment. It's receiving precisely timed signals from anywhere from four to maybe twelve satellites, each of which are constantly transmitting their local time, a time derived from an onboard atomic clock, and precise location in space from which the GPS makes navigational calculations in order to determine a lat/lon position on the earth's surface. It then records the calculated positions and times in its memory. It's also simultaneously doing a host of other things like displaying the track on a continuously updating color map, calculating and displaying speed, ETAs, course, altitude and many other parameters.

Here's a sample track from a bike ride to Red Mountain across the bay from Homer. We were going uphill so the total time involved was 2 hr, 17 minutes and my GPS recorded 419 points on the 8.9 mile long ride. A typical downhill return takes about 45 minutes. Also visible is the track of our boat trip from Homer Harbor to Jakolof Bay.

Red Mountain Bike Ride (GPS track in green)

With the use of some software from Garmin, (Garmin Basecamp, a free download) they are displayed on a topographic map of Alaska. They can also be displayed beautifully in Google Earth or in Google Maps. You can see that my track, which follows the actual Jakolof Bay Road, reveals a disparity in the location and shape of the roads as the map represents them. This is one sort of thing I'm working to correct. Don't get me wrong. You can buy very accurate maps for almost any country on earth for around $100 bucks a pop but the world wide map I'm working on is put together and maintained by volunteers, exactly the way Wikipedia works, and it's free to anyone who wants it.

The Alaska topo map you see above is also free and probably took its roads data from the old Tiger line files produced by the U.S. government years ago. TIGER/Line files are digital files and contain geographic features, such as roads, railroads, rivers, and while better than nothing they provide only a very rough approximation of the actual road shape. The topographical data is in the public domain and is available from the U.S. Geological Survey, the makers of the high quality U.S. topo maps many of you are familiar with.

(Free topo maps for much of the U.S. available here.)

The road maps I've been using in Thailand are produced by the Open Street Map Foundation, (OSM) a non-profit group of volunteer mappers and programmers located all over the world. They are completely free and because the street data are quite comprehensive they can be used in GPS units that do auto-routing. With an auto-routing GPS you merely enter a destination into the unit and then command it to "Go there". Its internal software will make decisions based on data in the maps (such as one-way streets, road segment lengths, speed limits, etc.), to create a complete route, a turn-by-turn dialog that plays as you follow it. Some units can further assist the driver with spoken directions in either a male or female voice.

(Free auto-routing Garmin Maps available here.)

I only recently learned that anybody can upload their GPS tracks to the  OSM map database. I did that never thinking those tracks would end up "in print" so to speak. But lo and behold, I downloaded an update to the Thailand maps I've been using and to my complete amazement, there were the roads I added! I was thrilled to say the least. I can make contributions to a map that is free to download, learn about auto-routing GPS maps, and then share my efforts with the rest of the world. It's totally awesome. I've added tons of streets in my Chiang Mai neighborhood, some roads over in Udon where I was last week and now I'm doing the area around Homer. Apparently no OSM volunteer has decided to fix up the map of the Homer area yet. Until now.

To explain how I got started with this, Nut and I wanted to drive around the other side of Lake Phayao on the bike while we were visiting the area a couple of years ago. I wrote about it here: Lake Phayao. It was a beautiful ride we had to scope out on our own because none of the roads we used were on the OSM map I had on my GPS at the time. We had been to the west side of the lake but only by a lucky accident. I wanted to find a better way. Using Google Earth I located a small road on the north side of the lake that connected with the west side roads I wanted to travel and with a highway that existed in the version of the OSM map I was using at the time. I set up a waypoint in my GPS and we drove there on the Phantom to make our start. Here's a screen shot of the Lake Phayao map as it looked in 2010. We followed a series of small unnamed lanes that hugged the shoreline until we got to the big highway bordering the lake on its southern side. Then we turned around and did it again.

I uploaded the tracks from my GPS and with the help of aerial imagery available on the OSM Map Editing interface, added the roads we had explored. Here's the map as it looks now.

When "my roads" first appeared on the downloaded maps, I cannot tell you how thrilled I was. I've always loved maps and have spent hours, days, months, staring at topo maps, road maps, any map I could get my hands on. Back in the 60s a friend owned the entire set of topographic maps for Cape Cod, something like 30 big maps. I inherited them when he moved to California and when tacked up on my bedroom wall they took up the entire thing, floor to ceiling. I still have a roll of Homer topos stashed in Homer but since the advent of Google Earth I never look at them.

I had often wondered how I could break into cartography but the learning curve for real map making, the background one would need in spherical geometry, the understanding of projections and datums, etc., was enough to put me off.  But with the OSM Editor, Potlatch, with a backdrop of Bing aerial imagery  it's relatively easy to add roads, rivers, even sophisticated things like freeway interchanges to the OSM road map of the world.

In the screen shot of the OSM representation of the nearby Rte 1369 and Rte  1001 interchange that I worked on you see roads/lanes in yellow (OSM calls them ways), with arrows to depict one-way lanes, the background of Bing aerial imagery, and the red dots that represent "nodes" in OSM parlance. In the photo one of the ramps has been "selected" by clicking it with the mouse thus rendering the nodes visible. There are similar nodes in the other ways but you can't see them because they're not selected. When selected any node can be moved with the mouse to align the roadways, make junctions, smooth the curves, etc. Double-clicking any node starts a new way from that point or allows extending an existing way. There is much more to map editing but that covers the very basics.

Junction of Thailand Routes 1369 and 1001 shown with Bing aerial imagery as background
When I started working on this interchange it was shown on the OSM map simply and incorrectly as two 2-lane roads intersecting at a traffic signal. The reality is as you see above. It does consist of two 2-lane roads but they don't actually intersect. For starters both roads are divided highways. Route 1001 crosses 1369 on a bridge and there are entrance and exit lanes to limit and control access in typical freeway style. I tweaked and fiddled, then tweaked some more to obtain the result you see above. If coming from the east on 1369 and wanting to go to the Rim Ping Market the GPS will now correctly tell you to proceed west until you can make a U-turn and then come back to the market (Note: in Thailand you drive on the left) whereas before it would have told you to make a right turn at the light, an impossible maneuver because no intersection exists — 1369 is underneath 1001 at that point.

Below is a screen shot of the roads at the end of East End Road in Homer as they exist in the OSM database at present. The roads are shown as they appear in the OSM editing window and are overlayed atop Bing imagery which shows a bird's eye view, taken from satellite photos, of the area. You can see that the Tiger line files they're based on are practically worthless as representations of the actual roads. However they are a starting point and generally provide correct road names that are not copyright protected.
I love that area at the end of the road. It's special because I lived there during my first years in Homer, years before Vosnesenka and Razdolna existed, and because my son Tuli was born out beyond road's end on the Rainwater homestead in 1984.  It's going to take a ton of effort to fix things up but I'm happily working away on doing the entire extent of East End Road and when I've got it finished I'll write it up. My other projects include Seldovia, the Red Mountain area and the Rocky River Road, Oilwell Road in Ninilchik, Diamond Ridge area roads and trails — all favorite haunts of mine. And then there's Thailand and Chiang Mai with its warren of small lanes, many unnamed and unmapped. Lots to do.

OSM map of East End Road and environs, November 2012
But I'm having a ball doing this. Life is good. I'm healthy and I'm busy — making maps, doing field work with my GPS on the streets in my neighborhood, playing the best tennis of my life, enjoying living in the Land of Smiles and hanging with my sweet gal. Who could want more?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Solo trip to Udon

 Not all that much is happening here in Chiang Mai but I've been wanting to write a short post describing my trip to Udon Thani last week. I've fallen into a routine, albeit a comfortable routine, but there's not much exciting stuff to write about. Life over here is easy and I'm basically a home-body happily passing my time studying Thai, eating out, riding here and there, playing tennis and lately, contributing to the Open Street Map project. I'll have lots more to say about that in a later post. Nut and I moved into a new, bigger apartment a few weeks ago and it's quite a nice place that we've been adding bits and pieces to all month. We have a kitchen now, a huge separate bedroom, a living room, and 2 baths. Quite an improvement over our old place and at 4500 baht per month ($150) it's cheaper too.

Of course, heart surgery is on my mind occasionally. There will be plenty of time to think about that as the time to leave approaches so I try not to dwell on it. I did hear from a Dr. Johnston at the Cleveland Clinic who, after reviewing my medical data, told me he was able to offer me the so-called minimally invasive aortic valve replacement procedure.This is very good news. It means that instead of the standard sternotomy (massive chest sawing and splitting) he wants to use the newer mini-sternotomy procedure, which involves a much smaller incision in the chest, to access the aortic valve for replacement. Success rates are excellent, healing time is much reduced and there are fewer side effects. After giving up on the idea of tennis next summer, now I'm thinking maybe I'll be able to play after all. That would be most excellent. My endurance on the courts is noticeably reduced now. A 5-shot rally leaves me fairly winded and 3 hours of playing doubles in the heat wastes me. But I'm happy and my game is actually improving. I have hopes that this operation will change all that for the better.

The trip to Udon had a sort of dual purpose. I wanted to get out of the city for a ride in the country and also to visit my Homer friends who hang out over there. DC, Albert, and Sean were freshly arrived from Homer and the motorcycle has been just sitting around begging to be ridden. Nut decided to stay home and putter in our new place so this trip was a solo ride.

Udon's about 450 miles (700 km) from here and I always take two days to do it  breaking for the night in Nam Pat. It's a lovely ride especially at this time of the year when northern Thailand enjoys the clear air and moderate temperatures of its "cold season."

First burning of rice straw - Route 1105 near Uttaradit
Scene from Route 1268 near Nam Pat
I took Route 1268 to go from Nam Pat to Loei because it's such a beautiful, scenic trip. The road is very twisty though and it's become bumpy during the past year so the going was slower than I remember. I traveled the 1268 during my first few weeks in Thailand when three Homer friends and I did a big motorcycle tour of north Thailand. It seems long ago that we set off on that adventure but in reality, it was less than 3 years ago. That trip turned me on to motorcycling and to Thailand.

The jungle is lush along much of the route and that makes it shady, always a welcome situation in the tropics. I used to tease Nut about how she instinctively avoids the sun. Now, I too invariably cross over to walk on the shady side of the street.

Riding through the shady jungle - Route 1268
Along Route 1268
I got to Udon and hooked up with Albie, Sean and DC. Those boys were doing their thing, staying out late and chasing bar girls. But DC loves to ride and he's just bought a new motorcycle, a CBR250 like mine, only in black. We did a few day rides in the surrounding farmland and along the Mekong River.

The Mekong River north of Nong Khai
DC and I with the Mekong in the background
We got Sean and Don to go along with us to one of our favorite haunts, Phu Fai Lom park. I have posted similar scenes in the past because when I'm in Udon we always make this trip, so bear with me here. What you see below is a composite of two photos.  DC took one with me in it and I shot the other with him in it and then Photoshopped myself into the first one.

At the park
After a few days I turned the CBR westward and headed toward Chiang Mai. I decided to return by a slightly different route seeing as 1268 had been so bumpy. I drove Route 203 back through Phu Ruea and then split off onto Route 2013 just above Dan Sai — all beautiful roads and pretty farm country. Here are a few photos:

Route 203 near Phu Ruea
Serpentatious statue -- Route 203

I reached my little guest house in Nam Pat after a thoroughly enjoyable day of riding and ended up spending most of the evening researching alternate ways back to Chiang Mai. I wanted to try the back roads north of Lake Sirikit and after fooling around with Google Earth, my Thailand paper maps and my Open Street Maps that live on my GPS and computer I came up with a route that I thought might work. There were about 40 miles of dirt to cover but I reasoned that as long as it wasn't wet, it was worth a try. The trip up to where the dirt began was pleasant. So far so good. Route 1341 runs through very rural back country but the further I got the rougher and narrower it became.

Along Route 1341

Peaceful valley - Route 1341
Muddy ruts on PHR 4001
As I climbed higher into the hills I got excited about the views I would soon enjoy and that I was developing an alternative route over the mountains that could be a vast  improvement over Route 11, the limited access highway that one is practically forced to use for the last 100 miles to Chiang Mai from Uttaradit. But it was not to be. The road, PHR 4001, described as having a "compacted surface" was anything but. It was rocks, gravel, seriously washed out from the recent rains, slick muddy ruts, and then more rocks.

I might have toughed it out over the rocks but the mud was very slippery and I didn't want to risk a fall, especially so far from anywhere. So after just a few hundred meters I reluctantly turned around and headed back down the hill.

Maybe next time....

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sick and Tired of Politics

 I'm depressed these days.

It's this damn election and all the bullshit associated with it. I'm tired of seeing the divisiveness as I scan the news or go to Facebook to check up on the activities of my friends only to witness the constant carping from both sides. And oh, let's try to forget the Presidential Debates. The made for TV debates in which both candidates skirt and avoid serious issues. The issues most Americans would really rather not hear about. Blech! It's all such a waste, sort of like saving the pieces of a broken wineglass when the rest of the house has been destroyed. In my opinion our political campaigns are insipid and useless. I can't wait for it all to be over.

I decided to tune out of the political debates most of my friends are having because frankly, I don't see much difference between the parties. They're but two sides of the same coin. Plus, there's no way I'm going to change the minds of those on "the other side" anyway. I'm a life-long Democrat and shed tears of joy when Obama won the presidency but when you get right down to it, he's just another president that misled us about what he would do and, with the single exception of improvements to Medicare (still an unknown quantity), has steadfastly retained the status quo. We're still in Afghanistan, we're still expanding our military footprint overseas, we still have prisoners in Gitmo, we still lock up American citizens without a trial or legal counsel, we still have Homeland Security and the incomparably annoying and useless TSA, two hugely expensive new government operations that came out of 9/11 while the national debt soars and reducing the massive budget of the Defense Department isn't talked about. Obama's campaign slogan "Change" was essentially exactly that in the end, a slogan. A slogan used by the ad agencies his party hired to help him gain the presidency. Welcome to American politics, a skillful blend of advertising and bald-faced lies where it might cost a billion dollars or more to win the nation's highest office. And then, once elected, the corporations who paid to put you there demand to be taken care of. Again, Blech!

I read a thought provoking article the other day. In the article, The Opiate of Exceptionalism, by Scott Shane writing in the NY Times on October 19 of this year, the author asks us to:

"Imagine a presidential candidate who spoke with blunt honesty about American problems, dwelling on measures by which the United States lags its economic peers.

What might this mythical candidate talk about on the stump? He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania. He might take on educational achievement, noting that this country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education. He might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility.

The candidate might try to stir up his audience by flipping a familiar campaign trope: America is indeed No. 1, he might declare — in locking its citizens up, with an incarceration rate far higher than that of the likes of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China; in obesity, easily outweighing second-place Mexico and with nearly 10 times the rate of Japan; in energy use per person, with double the consumption of prosperous Germany."

He goes on to say that Americans believe we aren't like other people, we're special, exceptional. That we don't like hearing anything to the contrary even if it's true. Americans expect their political candidates and elected officials to be cheer leaders, not people who get hung up on problems. Our addiction to this notion is akin to an opium addiction -- at first it allows us to see only the good but ultimately it makes us stupid.

But I would continue in the same vein and add that we are exceptional in some other ways too. According to Wikipedia we are the world's largest armaments producer, to the tune of $8.6 billion in 2010. We also have the world's biggest "defense" budget measured either in absolute dollars ($711 billion) or as a percentage of GDP (4.7%). China is second with an outlay of $143 billion and 2.0% of GDP, while Russia is a distant 3rd at $72 billion.

And we use more petroleum than any other country, by far. Yet our government refuses to demand auto makers produce more fuel efficient cars. Might a candidate make an issue of that?  Not very likely. American drivers are forever clamoring for cheaper gas. It's almost as if we live in a vacuum and cannot see what the rest of the world is doing. If he did decide to make that an issue our candidate would be going head to head with the powerful oil and auto industries, a battle he or she would do well to avoid during a campaign. And afterward. Our thirst for oil means we've been friendly with Saudi Arabia for many decades. In case you've forgotten, most of the Islamic fundamentalists that took down the WTC were Arabians. Our supposed allies.

Getting back to Mr. Shane's hypothetical question. How would such a mythical candidate fare in the election? He'd stand a snow ball's chance in hell.

I finished a book the other day, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, by Chalmers Johnson, that does a pretty good job of explaining our foreign policy since 1898 when we took the Philippines from Spain. Written in 2004, it's a page turner that I highly recommend to anybody wanting a fuller understanding of what our country is truly about. The so called "neoconservative triumphalists" in our government and particularly in the defense establishment espouse "preventative war" and the forcible spread of democracy and, according to Johnson, by 2003 were partly responsible for the fact that we had 725 bases in 130 countries around the world. The largest, Kadena AFB in Okinawa, has 18,000 troops not counting Japanese and other support staff, is worth about $5 billion and has been there since the end of WWII. We have huge bases in every corner of the world and especially, surprise, surprise, in places where there's oil.

He also answers the question of why we had no exit strategy in Iraq. We had none because we intended to stay permanently. We're never going to leave the middle east, or at least not while there's still oil in the region. Our military presence there is growing even though our troops are being withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our governmental leaders enjoy a revolving door policy with the huge defense contractors, Dick Cheney being perhaps the most extreme (and wealthiest?), example of this. And those contractors need a state of war to remain profitable. Enter Bush's War on Terror. It's never a ending war and consequently is perfect for those needs. Keep Americans paranoid about their security, keep those defense contractors busy, sell more arms, build more bases, incite another war somewhere, invade another country if need be, but keep the cycle going by any means available.

Upon reflection, what is it we have created in Iraq? A stable democracy? And what can we say about Afghanistan? Have we made the world safer for democracy by being there? Will we invade Iran, and if we do under what pretense? How much richer will Dick Cheney's Halliburton become, a contractor that in 2005 had already made $10 billion in Iraq alone? How many more lies will we hear that attempt to justify our terrorization of countries weaker than us?

Scanning the news yesterday I spotted this article: "Reporting a Fearful Rift Between Afghans and Americans", that reports a shootout between American and Afghan troops in which six people died, two Americans and four Afghans. These are people we trained to defend their country. But they don't like us. Is anybody curious as to why that is? Please read Johnson's book. It contains some of the answers.

I wrote this to clear my mind and lift myself out of the doldrums the election has plunged me into. But I also wanted to persuade friends who think America is on the right path that it isn't, that we have become an imperialist country, just like Rome was, like Spain, and like England. That if we ignore history, we're bound to repeat it. In the days of the British Empire the people who administered her colonies thought of themselves as smarter than, indeed better than, the indigenous people, were entitled to whatever that country could provide to the homeland, and that they were actually improving the lives of those whose countries they occupied. But the people of India, the Burmese, colonial Americans, the Irish, and all the rest with ample reason loathed their occupiers, as the Afghans loathe us. As the Iraqis  and the Arabian fundamentalists do, as do many of the Okinawans who are stuck living near the Kadena base. We are the occupiers now, the new imperialists. Our presidents have become "deciders" and can kill anyone on the planet for any reason, or no reason.

Oscar Arias Sanchez, President of Costa Rica (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987) once stated: “When a country decides to invest in arms, rather than in education, housing, the environment, and health services for its people, it is depriving a whole generation of its right to prosperity and happiness."

I couldn't agree more. For those of you who bemoan the high cost of a college education in America, or who are alarmed by the upward spiral of our national debt, or who wonder why it is that we are almost continually in a state of war, you have only to pull yourselves away from the infotainment we call "the news" and do some reading to see just how much of our nation's creativity and resources are being wasted on the military machine we have built and are hell bent on maintaining.

When I was a boy I believed in America and the American dream. And I think back then, things were simpler. America had already started down the path to  empire in the Philippines but I didn't know it. By the way, we resorted to waterboarding the troublesome and rebellious inhabitants of those islands after we "liberated" them and substituted our dominance for Spain's. But my eyes were blind to those sorts of things then and they really weren't reported in the TV news I watched. I thought of us as the good guys, the exceptional ones. But not any more. My eyes have been opened and I don't like a lot of what I see.

Whomever wins the coming election will not change much about what we do, or how we're viewed by the rest of the world, a world that is increasingly hostile to us. Obama, my hero in 2008, doesn't seem to have the power or the drive, and maybe not even the desire, to do it. Romney is, of course, repugnant to me on many levels, is a hawk, a denigrator of the common people, a wealthy corporation man, and will only magnify our bad reputation in the world if he gets in. I  will choose Obama again because he's the lesser of two evils. It seems that's what I usually do.

Isn't that a shame? It's no wonder I'm depressed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Eating in Chiang Mai

Nut and I have been patiently waiting for the end of the rainy season. We've done our our first big ride but it's still fairly warm and muggy outdoors, about 85-90 degrees F in the afternoon, so we've been spending those afternoons in our cool apartment only sneaking out around midday for lunch. Then towards evening after the sun is past its peak we'll go out and grab some supper.

Note 10-04-12: A friend asked in the comments section of this blog if we eat every meal out. Well yes, almost. But we generally eat breakfast at home: fresh fruit mostly and sometimes eggs or oatmeal. Shown is one recent breakfast. Fruited yogurt with muesli, oatmeal, juice and cocoa, or in my case, tea. There is mango, banana, long kong, and apple slices on the plate.

Now, back to the topic at hand. We've tried a few new restaurants lately and have discovered some great eating right in our neighborhood. One such place is on the ground floor of our building. And then too, we have a few special restaurants we discovered last year.  This article is about them and some Thai dishes we seem to order again and again.

Lately I've taken to ordering tom sap (ต้มแซ่บ) everywhere. This is a spicy, highly seasoned soup popular in northern Thailand (Issan) based on pork or chicken, less frequently beef, that's often served in a ceramic pot on a charcoal brazier placed right on the table. Many restaurants here in Chiang Mai serve it and each offering is slightly different.

We dip the fragrant soup directly out of the pot with big spoons. One of the seasonings is chilis of course, which give it a bite, and horapha (โหระพา) or Thai sweet basil, one of my favorite condiments. Add some onion, some lemon grass, a slug of nam pla (fish sauce) and you've got a lovely soup. In the photo you can see some of the horapha and chunks of pork in the pot as well as fresh green horapha and cabbage at the right. Thais eat raw seasonings and vegetables, usually cabbage or cucumbers, as an accompaniment to the main course.

Grilled tilapia, tom sap on the brazier, pickled pork sausage at Delicious Restaurant
This little place is an easily missed family operated shop aptly named Delicious Restaurant (เลิศรส) (Lert-rode) featuring northern Thai food, Issan food. Nut discovered it last year when we were staying at the Nice Apartments across the lane on Rachadamnoen Soi 1 near Tha Phae Gate. (N18.78881, E98.99238). One of  its specialties that I order literally every time we go there is grilled fish. These are farmed fish, as are 99% of all the fish eaten in Thailand, and are a type of tilapia with firm white meat and a reddish skin. They're called pla tab-tim (ทับทิม), literally pomegranate fish, and are stuffed with lemon grass and rolled in salt before going on the charcoal.  An average meal for two will set you back about $6 at Delicious Restaurant. The family knows us now as regulars — we are always greeted exuberantly and with wide smiles when we ride up on the bike.

Grilling pla tab-tim at Delicious Restaurant
There's another small restaurant a few yards up the street from our place named Som Tam Udon. We can walk there in minutes. (N18.80542, E98.98321) Their specialty is som tam (ส้มตำ), the green papaya salad that IMHO is justifiably famous all over Thailand. They also serve grilled chicken, fish and pork ribs and of course, tom sap.

Som tam with seafood (ส้มตำ ทะเล)

Tom sap (ต้มแซ่บ)
Another spot we love when we want to eat western-style food is The Duke's on the Chiangmai-Lamphun Road near the Iron Bridge. (N18.78516 E99.00501)

Duke's is more expensive than most of the Thai restaurants around but the service is great and the food fantastic yet cheap by stateside standards. (Here is Duke's Facebook page.) They have great looking burgers and steaks (I've not had any as yet), BBQ ribs to die for, a good if not perfect Caesar salad, along with other western dishes: we've had scrumptious carrot cake, excellent pizza, very hard to find in Thailand, and a favorite of mine, chili con carne ($3 bowl). The ribs are as good as Sean up at the Fritz Creek Store turns out. The meal below cost less than $15 USD for two.

Chile con carne, foccacia, pork steak in pepper sauce, warm spinach salad
Nut almost always has pork steak in pepper sauce at Duke's. I tell her to try some other things but she loves these little steaks and always gives the fried onion rings to me. Duke's pizza is the best I've had in Thailand by far. Most Thai pizza is unimaginative to the point that the tomato sauce used is a closer relative to catsup than the fine topping I'm used to from Finn's and Fat Rack in Homer. Nut likes Hawaiian-style pizza so that's what's shown here although many other kinds are available. This one, a medium size, cost about $10. As I said, Duke's ain't cheap but a similar pizza would cost at least three times that amount in Homer, Alaska.

Duke's medium pizza, warm spinach salad, shrimp cocktail
Another top spot for us is Hua Pla Mo Phi (หัวปลาหม้อไฟ) over in the Mee Chok neighborhood. They used to be in Chiang Mai Land but moved this December (2015) to a new and bigger place right on Rte 1001 near the Mee Chok Shopping Mall. The new location is at N18.82186° E99.01212°. Hua Pla means fish head and that's the specialty of this place, fish head soup. Everything we've had there has been excellent. I should add here that if not for Nut most of the places we frequent would probably never have discovered if I were operating alone. Her knowledge of Thai food is extensive and her taste impeccable. She read about this place in a magazine article. We've been eating there regularly ever since. (Note: Originally I had the name translated as Hua Pla Mor Phi but learned it is actually Hua Pla Mo Phi. If you are searching for it online, try both spellings as well as the Thai version.)

Dinner for two at Hua Pla Mo Phi
The dinner shown above, spicy fish head soup, crab cakes, stir fried morning glory with crispy pork, and a side of rice cost about $12. Another of their items that I almost always order is the fruit salad basket. Apples, melon, and grapes in a sweet dressing, topped with deep fried shrimp in an edible taro basket. Yummers!

Mixed fruit salad - Hua Pla Mo Phi

No discussion of favorite Chiang Mai restaurants would be complete without including Silomjoy. This is yet another family owned and operated restaurant serving breakfast and lunch right in front of the Tha Phae Gate on Rachadamnoen Road. Many farangs eat there because they serve an excellent western style breakfast but there's a full menu of Thai dishes as well. And one of the owners, Waou (แวว), creates the coolest latte art I've seen anywhere. Even on warm days when I would ordinarily prefer an iced coffee or latte, I'll order a latte from Waou just to see what she will come up with as decoration.

With Waou at Silomjoy restaurant
There are a few more places we like but I guess I can save them for another day. We're off to lunch.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Trip to Nan and Lake Phayao

We made our first of the season multi-day motorcycle trip last week. We drove over to Nan from Chiang Mai on a cloudy, cool and sometimes rainy day. The rain is lasting longer than I expected although of course I did arrive Thailand earlier than I ever have before. But as I keep pointing out, the rain is warm and while they're intense the squalls are generally brief so one can simply get the rain jackets on and drive through it. After a few miles the rain will stop and before long the roads and our lower bodies are dry again. It's a gorgeous ride over and back: Routes 118 north and 120 east out of Chiang Mai to Phayao and then Routes 1251 and 1091 from Phayao to Nan are all smooth, twisty, and for the most part lightly traveled roads that are great fun on a bike. The 180 mile (290 km) trip took us about 6-7 hours including several stops for coffee and lunch.
Along Route 4024 on the way to Nan (N19.09715, E99.97474)
Green hills near Nan
Wat Phra That Chaa Hang (N18.758189, E100.791580)
Next day we visited a famous ancient temple near Nan, the Wat Phra That Chaa Hang (วัดพระธาตุแช่แห้ง) built in 1353, which is a Year of the Rabbit (Bpii Tao ~ ปีเถาะ). Nut wanted to visit and make a small offering because she was  born during the Year of the Rabbit as well (1963).
I never buy souvenirs but I couldn't resist getting this little golden rabbit for Nut to put with her other collectibles of a religious nature. Buddhists have some interesting customs and beliefs but trying to get others to believe as they do isn't one of them. Ya gotta love that!
We spent two nights in Nan and then rather than going directly back home decided to split the return trip in half with a stopover at Phayao and its famous lake, Kwan Phayao. The reason to come to Nan is for the motorcycling — there's not much else going on — but being as it's still rainy we decided to make it a short visit. I always enjoy riding around the lake and that was another part of the motivation to visit.
Kwan Phayao, west shore (N19.18832, E99.85599)
Fisherman, Lake Phayao west shore
Just after sunset, Lake Phayao
The ride back to Chiang Mai was uneventful and was again punctuated by rain squalls. The CBR250 turned in 90 mpg overall, pretty good gas mileage considering it was all 2-up riding and involved many hills. We ride slow, rarely exceeding 50 mph, but that seems plenty fast on these curvy highways in our area.
On the road to Phayao

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Riding around Chiang Mai

As it turns out I'm writing this on the day after my birthday. It's still my birthday back in the states but here we've gone ahead to the 25th. I'm moved that so many friends have, through the "magic" of Facebook and the Internet, wished me well. Say what you will about the pervasiveness of the Internet— it does offer an easier alternative at birthdays to actually putting something in the mail. Thanks to all.

Nut and I took a short ride to the north of Chiang Mai the other day. We were planning to do the Samoeng Loop,  a favorite ride of ours that I've written about previously but rain at the high point of the trip where the road rises to cross a ridge of Doi Suthep turned us around. We skirted the showers by going north to a little coffee shop we know instead. The area around Chiang Mai is dotted with small gardens and large, rice paddies, flower farms, tea and coffee plantations and rubber tree farms. And at this time of year the rice paddies are so green it almost hurts the eyes.The day was cloudy, making for a pleasant ride and as a bonus, offering relief from the heat. It also added something nice to the lighting in photos below. (Click them for a full size view.)

Along Route 3009 north of Chiang Mai

The little shop, Pankret Coffee, is on the road to Pai. (N19.11530, E98.78496). It's situated in a cool spot and the owners have put a lot of effort into making it a perfect setting for an iced latte and a little something to nibble on.

Nut & I at Pankret Coffee

We've been riding in the area of Nan for the past couple of days and will head over to Payao after breakfast. From there we'll go back to Chiang Mai. The ride here was wonderful even though it was punctuated with rain several times. The nice thing about the rain in Thailand as I've often observed, is that it doesn't hurt you. We simply don our cheapo rain jackets and ride for a few miles until it stops. The rain storms up north are usually brief. Many folks just find a nice big tree overhanging the shoulder and wait it out. Yes, our feet and legs get wet but almost as soon as the rain stops, drying begins. And it's warm outside. Even the rain is warm so it's no biggie to drive on through. Besides, Nut hates to wait. She's always saying, let's go, let's go.

Now she's bugging me to go for breakfast. "Okay", I say, "let's go." ;-D

Nut, the object of my affections