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My Thai Uncle

by Tara

So, I have this Thai uncle. His name is Ad.

Uncle Brian, Uncle Ad, Uncle Steve & Dad

Over the years, I've asked numerous times how some guy from Thailand became a part of my grandparents' funny Jewish family in central Illinois. Each time, I've been met with a jumble of unclear stories and a haze of logic that never quite adds up to me.

All I really know is that Ad and my uncle Brian were friends in high school, that at some point he needed a place to live, and that place wound up being my grandparents' house. Eventually, they legally adopted him!

Cohen Family Photo w/ Uncle Ad

When I ask about specifics, things get confusing. Like, why was he adopted if he still had parents of his own? What was he doing in Illinois anyway? Was he a foreign exchange student or something?

Here's what I've gathered: it was the 70s, and there was trouble in Cambodia. Ad's family was afraid there was going to be trouble in Thailand too, so they wanted him to legally have guardians here, that way, if things turned bad, the government wouldn't force him out?

Something like that.

Anyway, the end result is that I have a Thai uncle. He lives in Lopburi, Thailand, and his family owns a gigantic restaurant by the name of Bualuang. Though I only met him a few times when I was a kid, I've always wanted to go visit. When we first started planning our trip, Bualuang was the very first destination we marked on our map. Now, more than two years later, we're finally going!

I have a confession: I hate calling people on the phone. I'm fine if its a friend, family member, or even a total stranger, but I get really nervous when the person in question is someone who I should know, but don't really. My nervousness is compounded if they also happen to speak another language.

I'm always afraid they won't know who I am, and it will be really awkward:

Me Hi, this is Tara, you know, Don and Marilyn's granddaughter? Remember me from like fifteen years ago?
Ad … *silence* … No.

For days I hemmed and hawed about calling Ad. I actually first emailed his niece, Sansanee, and asked if we could come, long before I was willing to pick up the phone. Email is safer.

However, you're generally expected to call places before you show up at them, so after much avoidance on my part, Tyler basically forced me to load up Skype and dial his number. Of course it was fine, and now Ad is expecting us this afternoon.

We're overjoyed to be heading towards Lopburi this morning. As we leave busy Ayutthaya and head into the countryside, we're eager to be there, but not so eager to do the pedaling required to get there. No matter, we have some awesome landscapes to keep our minds occupied as the kilometers roll by.

Thai Girl Thai House

It isn't long before we've powered through our meager breakfast. Fading fast, we stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Looking at the strictly Thai menu, we have no idea what they serve, but we fumble with our guidebooks a little, until we think we convey that we want any dish with chicken and rice.

Tyler & Thai Women with Phrasebook

Disappointingly, we get exactly what we asked for. Two dishes of wilty cabbage, unseasoned steamed chicken, and plain white rice. We look longingly at everyone else's colorful meals, and wonder if the chef just didn't think we could handle flavors or spice?

It's a depressing experience, but we console ourselves with the fact that we'll very soon be eating like kings. Bangkok spoiled us, as everyone spoke English. We must improve our Thai language skills, and fast!

As we ride, I think about all the stories I've been told about Bualuang. My grandparents (who have been to Lopburi a couple of times), say that the Princess of Thailand has her own room at the restaurant. I've also heard a rumor that Ad's sister's husband is a four star general. There are also mythical tales of gorgeous fountains and ponds and koi fish, flowers and birds and bunnies.

Basically, the whole place sounds like it will be a Shangri-la where we will be treated like Royalty and fed until the cows come home. And, most importantly, I'll get to re-connect with family.

There's Ad, of course, and also Sansanee, his niece, who lived in the States for a few years. The few times I met her, I remember her being nice, but really quiet. Then there's Golf, Ad's nephew, who went to art school in Chicago. Apparently he has a family of his own now.

With all of this going on in my head, I hardly notice the scenery. Tyler stops often to take pictures though, and tries reminds me: holy crap, we're in Thailand!

Thai Shrine Thai Cows Tara & Cow in Thailand

I always imagined Bualuang to be in the countryside, but our GPS says we're only a kilometer away, and we are cycling along a clogged street in the busy town of Lopburi. We ride past regular stores, fast food places, a mall, and a convenience store, and then there, on the left, is what looks to be the large parking lot of a gated community.

This is it! A guard ushers us in from the street, and at the very same moment, an SUV pulls up. The window rolls down, and Ad's face is revealed, much as I remember it being. "I thought that was you! Two farang on bicycles, it had to be you," he says, laughing.

He then informs us, with a very chilled-out "hang loose" kind of vibe, that he's been expecting us for a year now. He's been "on stand-by" for our arrival ever since my grandparents told him we'd be there around Christmastime last year! Whoops! Oh well, he doesn't seem to mind.

After catching up, and getting to know one another a bit better, Ad gives us a quick tour of the grounds. It's an enormous convention center complete with gardens, fountains, flowers, and pools, as well as cages of bunnies and birds, just as I've always been told.

Unfortunately, there's no room ready for us at the moment, so when the tour is over, Ad takes us to a hotel across the street. He leaves us to shower and change, saying he'll come back to pick us up for dinner in a few hours.

Bualuang must have a dozen eating areas, including a main restaurant, several smaller party rooms, a family room, the first outdoor patio, the second outdoor patio, etc. The list goes on and on, but Ad brings us upstairs to the main restaurant, which he calls "The Air-Con Room".

Ad & Boss

There, we meet his son, Boss, and proceed to eat a sumptuous feast including fish with greens, rice cakes with peanut sauce, tom yam soup, and our favorite, gai pad metmamoun, fried chicken in a sweet, cashew sauce served in a delicate nest of fried taro root. YUM!

Gai Pad Metmamoung in Taro Bowl (Stir Fried Chicken w/ Cashews)

Over an insanely good meal, Ad teaches us some useful Thai words and food vocabulary. We pepper him with questions about how to order, and learn some important phrases, namely: pet dai. Now that we know how to say "spicy is good!" our food luck will hopefully improve.

But, that phrase will have to wait awhile, because I don't think we're going to have any trouble getting delicious food here. Hopefully, over the next few days we'll get a glimpse of what it's like to live and work in a Thai restaurant.

To Ad and family, thank you for having us!

Next Entry
Thai Food Feast


That last dish looks amazing.
Posted by Navi on November 22nd, 2010 at 5:39 PM
Don't worry, those of us who knew Ad in high school could never quite figure it out either! So great to see him turn up here; I was wondering if he would!

Xan (old friend of your dad's)
Posted by Xan on November 29th, 2010 at 2:13 AM
Navi - It was! ;-)

Xan - How great to hear from someone in his class! Did my dad tell you about our site? Nice cooking/gardening blog, by the way. I love the madeleine pan amongst the spices.
Posted by Tara on December 5th, 2010 at 11:18 AM
Tara- so nice of you to reply! Yes, Mark's one of my dearest friends from college; lost touch with him for literally decades, then found him on line. I drop in here periodically to see where you are! (My kids did the world tour thing too-- one as a piano player on a cruise ship, one with an international ice show.)
Posted by Xan on December 5th, 2010 at 2:23 PM
Xan, I can't exactly recall when or how you met AD, but I'm guessing I must have invited you to one of those egg roll making and eating extravaganzas? AD would spearhead an amazing production in my parent's kitchen with mountains of hand-chopped veggies, egg roll wrappers rolled and sealed, then deep fried to a delicious golden brown. mmmmmmmm. The smoke alarm was activated many a time.
Glad you are enjoying Tara & Tyler's travels.
Posted by Mark on December 8th, 2010 at 9:52 PM
I stumbled across your photos while I was doing a search for Bualuang. Ad happens to be my first cousin. Maybe I can fill you in--and maybe clear up--some of the details about Ad (if he hadn't already done so on your visit).

Ad came to Champaign, IL to live with my mom and dad because his father wanted to have an American education (and, I presume to speak English). Ad's father was doing well financially and had no problems covering the costs of sending a kid overseas. He lived with us when he came over. I was born just after he came. He repeated a grade of JHS his first year since he spoke no English.

He moved out (I'll have to ask my folks more on the specifics) during high school. It was the 1970's and Ad was a pretty rebellious kid.
Posted by Aaron on May 13th, 2014 at 11:36 PM
....oops, I hit send before finishing.

Anyway, he decided to be independent. He went off to SIU and my folks moved to Bloomington. He and his father came to visit us in 1980, when he left the USA for good.

History repeated itself in 1993 when Golf came and lived with us during high school. He too decided to move out before he graduated. But he was 18 and legally an adult. Like Ad, we had an awkward relationship with Golf while he lived under our roof. But things have smoothed themselves out over the years. And my dad frequently goes back and stays with Ad and Golf ad Bualuang.
Posted by Aaron on May 13th, 2014 at 11:53 PM
Hi Aaron, it is wonderful to hear from you and learn the backstory of how Ad came to be in central Illinois. Thanks for clearing up some of the mystery! I am so glad that you found our website. Next time you go to Thailand, enjoy all of that amazing Bualuang food for us!
Posted by Tara on May 15th, 2014 at 8:02 AM