Visiting Thailand with Kasma Loha-Unchit

 

If you have discovered Thai Food & Travel and are intrigued by the itineraries, you may wonder what it’s really like to visit Thailand with Kasma Loha-Unchit. Is she serious about the spiciness of the food? Will you be comfortable in accommodations that are basic or rustic? Is it really possible to do so much in so little time? Is it as awesome as it sounds? In a word, yes. These trips are not for everyone, but they might be for you.

Overview

Traveling with Kasma Loha-Unchit is not like taking a “package tour” of Thailand. Her itineraries includes many stops you won’t find in the typical guidebook, and bypass most international resort areas. The group often pulls over at small roadside stands for snacks or specialty ingredients. At restaurants, Kasma orders the best of what is available and everyone eats “family style”; nothing dumbed down or Westernized is tolerated. There is no canned narration and no collusion with vendors. Many tours seem designed to complete a checklist of “must see” attractions while protecting you from getting too close to the local culture. By contrast, Kasma invites you to join her as a guest while she revisits the places she loves.

I first learned of Kasma when a friend gave me a copy of Kasma’s cookbook It Rains Fishes. I rediscovered it when I moved in 2004, and was drawn into the long narrative descriptions of Thai ingredients and how they were used back home in Thailand. At various points in the text, Kasma mentioned taking small groups of students and friends to markets and restaurants in Thailand. I looked up Kasma’s web site, and discovered a Southern trip that promised many days of snorkeling. My mind filled with visions of authentic Thai food and warm tropical waters teeming with fish: paradise. I snagged the last available spot on the trip leaving in January 2005. As of this writing, I have taken three trips with Kasma and her husband Michael, two to the South and one to the North. With each trip, I have learned more about the history, culture and food of Thailand, and my appreciation of Kasma’s leadership style has deepened.

In my opinion, Kasma bring the best traits of a teacher to her trips. She enjoys taking her students on a voyage of discovery, patiently answering questions on a wide variety of topics. Cooking techniques and ingredients, of course, are a central focus on that journey. But she also imparts her wisdom on farming and fishing, traditional crafts, arts and architecture, and the role of Buddhism and ritual in Thai life. These insights are delivered not over crackling bus loudspeakers or as stuffy after-dinner lectures, but in countless small ways throughout the trip that enrich every experience.

While Kasma is amazingly even-tempered, every teacher sometimes has to be the disciplinarian. The group is small and travels in close quarters, and not everyone is going to agree on everything. It is important to be civil and treat all members of the group with respect. One aspect of being considerate has been my downfall on a couple of occasions: Kasma does not appreciate anyone running late and keeping the group waiting, especially for early morning departures. Sorry!!

I hope to return to Thailand soon. When my friends suggest other destinations, I demur. It is not due to lack of interest in the cuisine and culture of those countries, but because I would like to see them through the eyes of a teacher like Kasma. And that is a very high bar.

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