I don't know how else to start this post than to get straight to the point. We love Chiang Mai!
Chiang Mai - the second largest city in Thailand, lies at the foothills of the north. When we were looking at the weather forecast for our trip north, we weren't exactly excited about what we were going to find - heat in the 90s with 90+% humidity every day, and daily downpours. Would it just be sweltering the whole time we were there? Ugh. But, Chiang Mai is the favorite Thai city among the many travel bloggers and resources that we have used, so we were ready to just grin and bear whatever was in store for us. Once again, we completely lucked out with the weather! Probably thanks to global warming, this rainy season hasn't seen much rain, and the temperature hovered between 75* and 85*. The humidity even gave us wonderful breaks in the morning and night time, only really making us sticky in the later afternoon. We even appreciated the almost constant cloud cover that protected us from the sun. All in all, we really couldn't have asked for better!
Before I get into all of the details of our stay, I'll get right to the point - Chiang Mai is amazing and we LOVE it here! There is just something about this city - the incredibly kind and inviting locals, the flavorful food, the laid back lifestyle, the welcoming culture, the juxtaposition of serene temples with music-pumping bars and quiet monks with rowdy teens. Ok, there's a lot about this city. My first impression of it was that it's WAY more accessible and inviting than Bangkok. Perhaps it's because it's not as crowded and traffic isn't as bad. In any case, we immediately felt comfortable here.
Welcome to Chiang Mai!
We landed at the small Chiang Mai airport around 9pm. It was dark and we weren’t sure what we were in for. While the airport was close to the Old City, where we had one night booked at a guest house, we didn't want to walk there in the dark. We walked out of the terminal to order a cab - instead of hailing one, we went to the official Taxi Meter desk to get quoted a price and get a receipt. That way, we don't have to negotiate a price later, or get scammed by a not-so-nice driver. Receipt in hand, we walked out to the queue and were assigned a driver, a rotund man with a stern looking face. He looked at our paper, handed it back to us, and we followed him in silence to the car. As we walked through the parking lot, another cab driver patted our guy on the back and said, "You have a great driver!" What a funny thing to say! "Oh good! We hope so!" we said back to him. Still silent, our driver opened the trunk and loaded our stuff. As we climbed into the back seat, Jake asked "Do you speak English?" It's like he flipped the "on" switch - our driver started talking in perfect English, about all kinds of things! Toto ("it's my nickname!" he told us) is originally from the nearby town of Chiang Rai. He lived in Los Angeles for many years as a chef at a Thai restaurant in Chinatown. "Americans cannot handle spicy! We always had to tell them dishes are very spicy, but they did not believe us. If we made dishes the regular Thai way, their mouths would be burning! Thai people always said we did not make it spicy enough!" We told him that we're working on our spicy tolerance - we even put two chilies in our papaya salad the other day! He scoffed and told us we must try harder. "We'll work on it while we're here!" As we drove through the old streets, Toto pointed out special landmarks, giving us an impromptu tour. We drove past the Three Kings Monument, a tribute to the three kings who worked together to establish the city. The statues were decorated with flower necklaces and sashes, and yellow candles burned in front of it. During the day we would see people paying their respects to these kings, kneeling and praying in front of the monument, leaving food and flowers as offerings. Toto pointed out the North Gate and the moat that still surrounds Old City, "700 years old! It's very important!" Jake and I noted how neat It is that the moat was not covered over - the old waterway is a distinct design element that adds to the allure of the city, and is decorated with fountains and lights, and adorned with trees on either side. Before too long we arrived at our guest house and said goodbye to Toto. What a great introduction to this wonderful place.
Finding our next temporary home.
The guest house we booked ahead of time for our first night, Baan Nam Sai Guest House, was just fine - clean, and nothing special - and would have been good enough to stay in for the entirety of our stay, but we wanted to see what else was available, and what kind of deal we could negotiate. So on our first morning we woke up early (ok not really early, but early for me when I don't have a job…about 7am) to check out some guest houses.
After touring eight places, negotiating rates, and being given every reason to stay at each one, we chose to move in to the Britannia Guest House, a great place run by Lucky, a New Zealander, and his wife Ow, a Thai native. Our room with private bathroom and fantastic AC came out to 540 baht per night, about $15.50. The location, the northeast corner of Old City and within a 30 minute walk to just about everything we wanted to see, was perfect. And the room itself was really clean - a wonderful perk! Lucky and Ow used to live in New Zealand, where Ow had a Thai restaurant. They came back to Thailand about four years ago to escape a not-so-great New Zealand economy. Lucky and Ow lease the business of the guesthouse from the building owner and, I think, do a great job running the place. It's safe, well kept, and they are just lovely to chat with. We particularly love Lucky's attitude - easy going, flexible, and logical. When we told him we were looking around at a bunch of places, as is normal for many travelers in Southeast Asia, he said, "Yeah, I understand. You try a few on, and if it doesn't fit right, you move on. Give this one a try if you like." No pressure, just a nice guy to do business with. We recommend the Britannia if you happen to be coming through!
FOOD & MARKETS
Eating and shopping…what more do you need?
Most of the highlights of our trip to Chiang Mai revolve around food. I guess this shouldn't come as a huge surprise, since food is how we really like to learn about the culture of each place we visit. I have always been fascinated by and in love with hospitality, and the people of Thailand, Chiang Mai specifically, really get it- they are the nicest, most grateful people, who always make you feel appreciated. It's over meals that we meet wonderful people who run the shop we're in, or watch as locals buy produce at the market or snacks form a street vendor. We prefer to learn about a place through its culinary delights rather than its museums. Both are important, but to us, food, drink, and hospitality is life.
Our first venture into food in Chiang Mai introduced us to khao soi, aka heaven in a bowl. Khao soi is a traditional northern Thai dish that isn't quite a curry but isn't just a soup, and full of perfectly textured yellow egg noodles, meat (ours was chicken), and topped with fried egg noodles to give a welcome crunch to the dish. It's often served with a side dish of pickled celery, onions, and lime. Not really knowing where to go at 7am on our first morning as we searched for a new guesthouse to stay in, we wandered out to the main road next to the moat, on the eastern wall of the city, to see what was being served up in the small street food style shops. A man, lounging lazily in a chair on the sidewalk, playing with his earring, greeted us as we approached, "Sawadee krup! Khao Soi?" Well good morning to you too, sir! "Chia! Please!" We eagerly sat down at one of the metal tables and were immediately served two hot bowls of khao soi, At our first bite we looked at each other, sharing the same thought, "Holy crap this might be the best thing I have ever eaten, ever." Frankly, I don't know how I ever lived without khao soi up until now. It's creamy but not heavy, spicy but not burning, filling but not too big, sour and sweet and salty all at once. It was decided - we could eat khao soi every single day here and be perfectly content.
The owner then dropped two metal cups in front of us full of ice. Hmm…ice. I'd read about that in Southeast Asia, that it's not always to be trusted since the ice could be made from tap water, or set on the ground as a big block and chipped away to be included in drinks. Both are bad for our western guts. Thankfully, these water glasses were filled with large circular cubes with holes in the middle, indicating that they arrived in clean, sealed bags from a large commercial company, and are safe to eat and drink. Happy to have something cold to drink, I poured my own water into the cup and drank. And, if you must know, my belly handled it just fine.
All that walking was making us hungry, so we sought out one of Yui's recommendations (so we knew if would be good), a khao soi place near the Three Kings Monument called Sirachai Express. When we arrived, the place was buzzing with people! Tourists and locals were scrambling for places to sit, the people who worked there were speaking quickly and running around with bowls of piping hot khao soi and plates of chicken and rice. We stalked a table that was finishing up and sat down quickly when they left, claiming our territory. Within seconds, someone handed us menus that we definitely didn't need - "Khao soi, song koh! Kap kun ka!" ("Two khao soi, please! Thank you!", at least that's what I hope I said!) Yui didn't steer us wrong - it was AMAZING. I would decide later that this was my favorite bowl of khao soi, I only wish I could pronounce the name of the place! I only wish that the dessert we got at the place next door (another place I can't pronounce but the sign had a bowl on it!) was as deliciously satisfying as our lunch. We picked out a small package of pastel colored pockets covered with coconut that were filled with unsweetened peanut butter and served with a little packet of raw sugar to pour all over them. I think this is called khanom thom, also known as dessert balls. I had been hoping they were filled with sticky rice or coconut, so I wasn't thrilled with the peanut filling. Jake enjoyed them well enough.
The host of one of our favorite travel podcasts, Travis Sherry of Extra Pack of Peanuts, claimed that one khao soi joint in Chiang Mai is his favorite restaurant in the WHOLE WORLD. So, of course we needed to check it out. We walked into the family run joint, ordered our chicken khao soi, and waited patiently for the bowl of deliciousness to arrive. Like basically every place in Thailand, the people who work there are so, so nice! And the khao soi certainly did not disappoint - the soup was a bit thicker than we have had, the noodles were perfectly cooked, the chicken was moist and flavorful. We can definitely understand how this khao soi is Travis' favorite! To us, though, it takes second place to Sirachai Express near the Three Kings Monument.
According to Trip Advisor, one of the best "night spots" and coffee shops in the area is over near the university, and it's called…wait for it…Catmosphere! And yes, whatever you think that means is correct - the coffee shop is also home to 19 gorgeous cats that patrons can play with! This was just too good to pass up - I love cats, Jake (the International Cat Whisperer) deep down loves cats (of course he won't admit it though), and it’s a hilarious idea, so we had to check it out! And boy oh boy, it was everything I wanted! As we approached the establishment, we were asked to take off our shoes and wash our hands (ensuring the health of the kitties), and then they sanitized our hands again when we walked through the door. I appreciate the great care they took in order to ensure that guests hands are clean before touching the animals. The place itself was actually very clean, too; no cat hair anywhere on the floor that I could see! I was in awe from the moment we walked in - gorgeous cats were everywhere! Sleeping, eating, playing, entertaining other patrons. We sat down on cushions next to a table where a large grey and white long haired kitty named Jean Luc was lounging and ordered a Thai iced tea and a brownie - we really only came for the cats, but we felt that we needed to buy something too. And I'm glad we did, it was all quite delicious! Jake made friends with a little sweater-wearing kitty cat named Leeloo, appropriate since one of his favorite movies is The Fifth Element. She sat with him and inspected our brownie. I was busy cuddling with a little orangey guy with a smushed face called Cooper. According to one of the employees, he loves to be held. The moment I scooped him up he snuggled right under my chin and went to sleep. He was too darn cute and I wanted to smuggle him out of there in my purse, but I thought better of that idea and left him with his friends. That was definitely a worthwhile hour! And bonus - next door was a place called S'more Café, so naturally we stepped in there before carrying on our way to enjoy a frozen hot chocolate topped with marshmallows and chocolate sauce. Yum.
As we explored the city, we found fruit smoothie stands everywhere - apparently the people o Chiang Mai are crazy for fruit smoothies! Considering we didn’t each much fruit in Europe, and we usually eat tons of fruit when we're at home in California, we were excited to get our hands on some refreshing smoothies. We'd tried a few different places, but our found ourselves returning time and time again to a stand called Tips in the nearby Somphet Market, where a young woman named Rem took care of us each time. These delicious smoothies cost less than $1 each - the best deal for getting our daily serving of fruit!
I thought I'd never say this - sometimes we just get tired of noodles and want something else. Thankfully, a highly reviewed and recommended brick oven pizza joint, called By Hand Artisan Pizza, was just a block away from our guesthouse! When we arrived, we were greeted by the owner's sleepy black lab, and sat down in two old car chairs resting on tires at a knee high table. The place was expensive by Thai standards, about 300 baht for a personal sized pizza, so we didn't entertain the idea of getting any Italian or Spanish wine to accompany our meal. We enjoyed our pizzas, a classic margarita and the "summer" pizza with zuchini, basil, sun dried tomatoes, and fresh ricotta as we watched the light reflect off the wat across the street and listened to the crackling and popping of wood in the brick oven just behind me. We chatted about our dreams for South America, what to do, which countries to see, how to get there. And then, for just a moment, we were both silent. We sat back in our chairs, the same feeling washing over us at once - this is incredible. How lucky we are to be in this magical moment, doing exactly what we are doing, our biggest decisions being which country to go to first on our next continent. It was one of those times where we couldn't help but take a deep breath and smile.
One of my favorite places in Chiang Mai was Baan Borijinda, a small coffee shop just about a block away from our guest house. We liked it so much, in fact, that we went twice! The first time was a quiet Sunday morning. After reading about how amazing Thai coffee is supposed to be, and walking by the adorable Baan Borijinda many times, I decided I just had to have a caffeine fix. The place is adorable and looks like it belongs in San Francisco or Portland - the light fixtures are minimalist design with exposed bulbs, the tables are mismatched and made out of obscure pieces of wood or old sewing machines. The menu had the basic espresso, machiatto, mocha, etc. But what caught my eye was the DIY pour over option. Even though it was enough for two people to have a cup, and Jake doesn't like coffee, I ordered it anyway. Soon I was presented with a cut teapot full of hot water, fresh ground beans ready to be steeped, and a small plate of crackers. Holy cow - this is the best coffee I've ever had in my whole life! I don't have the coffee vernacular to describe the flavors and aromas, so just know that it was really, really good! It's from Nine Mountain - a local roaster who sources beans from the nine local mountains in the area. The company serves underprivileged farmers and helps them make a better living. I could have easily downed another two cups, but I would have been bouncing off the walls. I took my time enjoying my coffee, and we chatted with the owner, Moke. Moke told us that the coffee shop was his family's house for 15 years. Now they live in a house across the street. They opened the coffee shop in November, during the high season, and said that business was very good. In February, though, the slow season hit and the economy started to slow down as well, making business a bit more difficult. They would like to have more business, and I hope they get it! This place is so cute, the owners are so nice, and the coffee is amazing.
Before we left, Moke taught us how to properly perform a wai, where you put your hands in prayer position just below your chin and bow or nod. The wai is a sign of respect, appreciation, and thanks among the Thai, and we wanted to make sure that we were doing it correctly in order to properly show our gratitude without offending anyone. We certainly didn’t want to involve ourselves in Thai culture and then do it wrong! Moke gave us the confidence to perform a wai for the rest of our trip, and was more than happy to teach us. He really is quite lovely, just like the vast majority of Thai that we interacted with. These people are so welcoming and inclusive, kind and grateful. Instead of getting mad if we wai incorrectly, they would appreciate that we tried in the first place. The Thai seem to embody love and acceptance, and I think it's incredible.
We were really enjoying the slow(er) speed of life in Chiang Mai, and decided to take another day to get some work done back at Baan Borijinda. This time, I sipped a macchiato while Jake enjoyed cold chrysanthemum tea. Moke also surprised us with an interesting treat - a salty and sweet tasting fruit called Sandoricum Koetjape. It is possible the strangest tasting thing I've ever eaten, and I'm still not sure if I enjoyed it or not. The meat of the fruit is kind of like a soft pear, and the seed in the middle is covered in a soft, (sorry for this) almost boogery substance that is sweet. Moke said Thai ladies love this fruit, and it's the perfect season for it right now. We ate it, happily, and marveled at the confusing flavor. Minutes later, two very lost travelers approached the shop, hoping to use the phone. Josh and Becky, we learned, were trying to find a guesthouse after bailing on their other hostel accommodations (apparently it was so filthy they couldn’t stand it and left before checking in). Google Maps gave the wrong location of their new spot, and they had no idea where to go. We helped as best we could, as did Moke and his wife Oil, and sent them on their way. Before they left, though, we grabbed their email address and invited them to grab a beer with us later. We love meeting other travelers! And it's nice to speak lazy English with other people once in a while!
With plans to meet up at Archer's Pub (another recommendation from Extra Pack of Peanuts) for beers later, Jake and I decided to give the place a try for dinner. As we were reading the menus, trying to decide between a cheeseburger or green curry, the owner, a tall, burly, bald headed guy with a big smile, approached us. In his think British accent, he explained, "Welcome guys! Tonight's quiz night! You wanna play?" Oh man, pub trivia has never been my forte, and our team would just be the two of us. "I don't think we'd do very well!" He handed us the answer sheets anyway and told us, "You can just play along if you want. No need to buy in. I won't score your sheets, but here you can see how you would've done!" Fair enough! Thank goodness we didn't buy in, because we did pretty poorly. One of the tough questions: what cut of meat is called the same thing as a type of wine? Oh, and the final round: Listen to these five songs covered by Bob Dylan, name them, and list who originally performed them. HA! We were screwed!
Our new friends, Becky and Josh, arrived as we were finishing our stir fry, pad Thai, and French fries (what? I had a craving!), and just as trivia was wrapping up. We spend the next hour or so enjoying some local beers and getting to know them. They live in Chicago where she works for a nonprofit called A Better Chicago, and he just took the bar exam. They're traveling around Thailand for two weeks to celebrate their engagement and the end of the bar! It's always interesting to meet other people on the road, learn about motivated them to travel, and chat about what we've all learned. Becky and Josh learned that they hated Bangkok, but were very enthusiastic about the time they would spend in Chiang Mai. I hope they love it as much as we do!
One question we get a lot is, "What do you eat for breakfast?" The answer - whatever the locals eat! Here in Chiang Mai, that usually means lots of noodle soup (like the khao soi we had the first day), and a rice porridge called jok. Jake and I really enjoyed the jok topped with pork meatballs, a soft boiled egg, fresh grated ginger, fried garlic, and scallions, rice soup with the same toppings, and steamed buns filled with either pork or custard at a place called Jok Sompet. Talk about a hearty breakfast! It was a great way to start the day before heading out for big activities. We liked it so much we went there twice!
Instead of going to a fancy, more western looking restaurant for our last dinner, we decided to have one last meal of Thai street food. We ended up at a place called Grazie Thai, and chowed on khao soi. While the food wasn't our favorite, we sure did like the atmosphere. The woman who served us, Fay, showed us, yet again, that the Thai are just so darn nice and grateful. "Thank you for your order," she said with that famous Thai smile. After our meal she asked us what we were up to that evening, and if we enjoyed our stay in Chiang Mai. "You will have to come back here again!" she said. Oh, we will!
Chiang Mai has a vibrant market scene, there's the daily Night Bazaar, the Saturday and Sunday markets, and the Wararot Market, to name a few. I had read that many locals buy their food at the Warorot Market, and it was high on my list to check out. We quickly realized that much more than food is available here - you can buy pretty much everything - clothes, toys, flowers, snacks, meat, produce, fishing nets…it's all available! You could even get your live animals to take home a butcher later. Turtles, fish, and eels all swam in large buckets of water, waiting for their fateful selection. I love fresh water eel on sushi (mmmmmm unagi) but haven't ever seen one alive before. Let me tell you, those suckers are ugly! Swimming and squirming in those buckets, they looked like snakes and gave me the willies. I'd prefer it just appear on my plate, cooked and ready to eat, thank you very much! Of course this big market had a food court and we couldn't pass up the local specialties. We enjoyed a bowl of noodle soup with dark broth (that kind of tasted like pho, actually), and a plate of chicken and rice with hard-boiled egg. We also picked up some rambutan, fruit similar to lychee, to nibble on back in our room. They sure look weird (Chris, our scuba instructor from Koh Phi Phi, described them as "what you would think alien testicles would look like"), but they are really quite tasty - not overly sweet and textured like lychee. On our walk back we happened by an older man selling goodies wrapped in banana leaves. Of course, we were curious what was inside the pretty little packages and he opened one up for us. Inside were six small white and green things that we would later learn are called ka nom tuai, or "little cup desserts" - layers of rice flour pudding and some sort of jelly. They were so simple and so good. Later we had our first meal that we didn't like - thick noodles in gravy and green curry at Blue Sky Café. Neither dish tasted very good, especially compared to the incredible food we'd had already. The noodles tasted like tapioca, the gravy was lacking…any flavor really, and the curry was thin, poorly spiced, and full of baby corn (we would learn later that baby corn has no place in green curry, that traditional curry doesn't use it). We tried to salvage our meal with some sweets from "Da's Home Bakery". Since we called my grandmother "Da", I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get some treats! We walked back to our guest house with ginger cookies (that, sadly, weren't very good), and some really good chocolate covered macaroons! All was not lost in the culinary adventure of the day!
We spent one evening walking around the Night Bazaar, a market that is set up every single night, to see what was for sale. Not surprisingly, most of the vendors were selling the same products (t shirts, wallets, sandals, etc). I particularly liked all of the artwork for sale - many of the artists have permanent stores in the bazaar building and were painting as we walked by. They would smile and say hello, dressed in paint covered overalls, brush in hand. We didn't buy anything, but it was pretty fun to see the madness of the crowds! We even caught a performance - three teens in traditional hair, makeup, and dress danced while holding, what looked like, small bowls in their hands. When I was researching the market, I kept reading about a "not-to-be-missed" bar called Boy Blues Bar, where different artists would play blues music long into the night, sometimes joined by the owner, Boy. After about 20 minutes of searching for the place, we learned that it was closed for the holiday - makes sense, since no alcohol can be sold during the holiday. Bummer! I guess we'll have to come back another time.
The Saturday and Sunday markets are the real gems of the market world in Chiang Mai. First of all - they're huge (they each span over a kilometer). While many of the markets that we've been to generally have the same products for sale, we found that the items available at the Saturday and Sunday Markets were significantly better than the others; cute, well made clothes, beautiful wood carvings, and giant silver pieces beveled with detailed animal scenes. On Saturday, I tried my hand at bargaining for a couple t-shirts and quickly remembered how bad I was at my sales job. Getting someone to agree to a price is really not my forte, and I hate haggling. A lot. "Negotiating is like a game and should be fun for both parties," Jake kept reading over and over in tons of blogs and articles about Thai markets. I just don't see how that's possible. I don't think it's fun at all. Just please tell me a fair price for the item and take my money! Needless to say, I was not good at the whole bargaining thing, and did not get the vendors that I practiced on to come down anywhere close to the price I wanted (a price that was quite fair). As a result, I didn’t buy anything. At the Sunday Market I gave it a go again, and failed again. While I did end up buying a tank top, I wasn't able to negotiate a better price. But, considering the price was already super low (at least I thought it was low), I felt ok with my defeat. We stuffed ourselves with sausage, steamed buns filled with custard, fried corn balls (like fritters), a fresh coconut milk straight from a coconut (cut open in front of us with a machete!), and many other delicious items.What would a food post be without some ice cream? Thanks, again, to Extra Pack of Peanuts, we found Turtle Homemade Ice Cream, a nice little shop located in a Honda motorcycle showroom! Sure, it's an awfully random place for a boutique ice cream parlor, but the AC was great and the ice cream was delicious! Jake even commented that it they might have the best cookies n cream flavor he's ever had - it tasted like Oreos! One thing I'm learning about myself on this trip is that I love ice cream a whole lot more than I ever thought I did!
Time to cook!
Because we love food culture so much, it would make sense that one of our big activities in the city revolved around learning about food! One morning we were picked up by a baby blue 1974 VW van and whisked away to another part of Chiang Mai for al all day cooking class with Yui! Yui, a TV chef, and her husband, Kwan, have been running their business, A Lot of Thai cooking classes, since 1999 out of their house where three generations of their family still lives together. The class is small, only 8 people, and held on the covered patio where professional stations are set up for each student - big gas burners, woks, large square surfaces for prep, and tamarind cutting boards. We met our fellow students - a couple from Melbourne who is cycling around Southeast Asia, a couple from Beijing who were just in Chiang Mai for the weekend (she is a food critic/writer at home), a girl from Taiwan who was traveling by herself for a week (she might be the cutest, most shy, most polite person I've ever met), and a recent college grad from New York who was traveling around the world for a few months before starting work in October. It was truly incredible to be in class with such an international group! And I love, most of all, that what brought us all together was our love of food, and our desire to learn about and interact with the local culture.
Over the course of about 9 hours, Yui taught us how to cook six dishes - pad Thai, curry (Jake made green, I made red), hot and sour soup with prawns (heads included! No Dad, we didn't eat them, but I would have had they been fried!), stir fry chicken with cashew nut (probably our favorite thing that we made), spring rolls, and sweet sticky rice with mango! Needless to say, we were STUFFED by the end of the day! In between courses, Yui told us stories about herself and her history with cooking, making recipes, and sharing her passion for food with others. "How many of those cup desserts can you eat? I can eat 30. How many servings of curry do you eat? One, right? I usually eat two or three at a time. I just love to eat! And I eat everything!" She told us how, years ago, her doctors were very worried about her diet because she ate lard, real sugar, and full fat coconut milk. And now, research has shown that these natural foods are even better for you than the low fat, processed stuff. She said people have always told her that she's "too early" - her ideas about fashion, her ideas about food, her ideas about happiness…that sooner or later, her ideas become the trend. She's one smart cookie! She's also someone you do not want to cross! One woman stole her recipes and pictures and is selling them as her own, and Yui intends to finish her law degree (one of her many degrees), and take her to court herself! A self-proclaimed Sherlock Holmes, Yui says she can predict what our personalities are like and what our travel style is within moments of seeing us when she picks us up. It's the same with food- just by looking at it, she can decipher what we'd done to it - if the sauce is dark, the heat was high and we caramelized it, if the sauce is light, we used more oil. She's a people watcher and food detective, and it makes her fascinating to listen to, easy to talk to, and fun to learn from. I appreciated how logical she is - cooking doesn't have to be hard, it just needs to make sense. Here are three of my favorite tips from Yui:
- Diarrhea happens when you eat spicy food before anything else. If your stomach is empty, don’t eat spicy food until you've had a little something else. She always has snacks around so she can eat all day long, and is, thus, always prepared for an impromptu spicy meal. She also suggested we all have a light breakfast before class for this exact reason.
- Put simply, cooking is just a transfer of heat. Oil allows the heat to transfer more evenly to food so the inside of the food can get hot too. Cooking without oil, or without any liquid, will be more difficult since there is no liquid to transfer the heat - the outside will get hot fast and then burn, but the inside will be cold. You just need enough oil to transfer the heat, not to smother the food.
- If you put meat in the pan and it sticks to it, it's because the heat isn't evenly distributed. A perfectly heated pan that is lightly oiled should not be sticky. If your food sticks to the pan, don’t increase or decrease the heat, simply take the pan off the burner for a few seconds - when it is removed from the heat source, the heat in the pan seeks out the cold spots and warms them up. Just like cold air will seek out hot air and push it up, heat in the pan will find where it needs to go. Within seconds, your food will be free!
To round out our day of culinary immersion, we all piled into the van and headed to a local market where Yui showed as around and introduced us to the local fruit and produce - 10+ kinds of eggplant, the difference between western chives and Chinese chives, galangal, fresh noodles cut to order, curry pastes, hot and sour soup kits (lemongrass stalks, galangal, and a few other things tied together with banana leaves). As usual, the sights and smells of the market were quite interesting! By the time Yui and Kwan dropped us off at our guesthouse, we were so full and tired that all we wanted to do was watch a movie. It was a perfect night to curl up in bed and watch Die Hard. We highly recommend Yui's class to anyone going to Thailand!
Eager to burn off some of the cooking class calories the next day, we set out for a day of walking around Old City. With over 100 wats in Chiang Mai and countless places to grab a delicious bite to eat, we had our work cut out for us! We wandered the grounds of a few of the wats right around our guest house, and chose to skip paying the fee to see the inside of Wat Prah Singh. We were quite impressed, though, with Wat Chedi Luang, the biggest temple located in the center of Old City. Original construction of the temple started in the 14th century. In the 1545, an earthquake destroyed the pagoda and caused the top 30 meters of it to crumble to the ground. Next to the temple is a large gum tree that, according to local belief, protect the city - as long as the gum tree stands, the city will prosper; if it falls, disaster is eminent. We took our time admiring the glittering interior of the temple, watching people pay their respects to Buddha and little old ladies make flower bouquets for people to buy and place at the front as an offering to their god.
Time to visit the monks!
One of the most popular sights around the area is the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a temple that overlooks the city from 15 kilometers up the Doi Suthep mountain. After successufully negotiating a fair price (good job Jake!), we hired a songtheaw (red pickup truck that is like a taxi or bus, passengers sit in the covered truck bed on benches) to take us up the mountain to explore. We were joined by three other tourists in the back of the truck, and took off on the 45 minute drive. What was supposed to be an uneventful drive up the winding roads was actually an event in itself! As soon as we started the ascent, we came across thousands of people walking up the mountain, carrying shrines, playing instruments, chanting, and wearing matching shirts. They waved as we slowly drove by, and we waived back excitedly and snapped their pictures. We thought it must have been some sort of parade for the holiday (we still have no idea what holiday it was), but later discovered that these were groups of new students at the university. Every year, freshman from all over Thailand arrive in Chiang Mai to walk 8 miles uphill to the temple while wearing the t-shirts of their respective universities. Traditionally, once the students reach the base of the temple, they complete the climb by running up the 309 steps while holding hands. We were so lucky to be able to catch this old tradition! One thing that surprised us, though, was how many kids were passed out on the side of the road - apparently the stress of walking uphill was too hard on their bodies. We saw hundreds of kids in aid stations having smelling salts held under their noses, water poured on their heads, and fans waving in their faces. Jake and I were confused - it wasn't hot or humid (thankfully), and while 8 miles uphill isn't exactly easy, it's not exactly pass out worthy. I think these kids need more exercise! The whole spectacle was quite fascinating!
We spent about an hour wandering around the temple grounds. When we reached the 309 steps to climb, little girls (about 6 years old) were dressed in pretty beaded outfits and matching hats, running around the stairs. Being a naïve tourist, I started snapping their pictures. After a few minutes, one of them noticed and came running up to me, "Money! Money now!" OH! I see - a pint sized hustler! Yes, that makes sense. It's just like the guys with the monkeys on Koh Phi Phi - they put on a show, you pay if you take a picture. I wasn't going to fight with the tiny mob boss, so I dug in my purse for 3 baht as she waited patiently with her hand out. Later, I checked my shots - unfortunately they weren't in proper focus. Oh well!
The temple itself was beautiful! We circled the gold pagoda three times while whispering a Thai prayer with words that were practically impossible to pronounce and far too long for my western tongue to understand, and quietly took pictures of the beautiful structure. My favorite resident of the temple was a black and white cat who sat with his eyes closed in the middle of the floor near the pagoda. This kitty cat could not be bothered, no matter how close anyone got to him. I think he was meditating, having learned from his monk friends over the years. I snapped a shot of Jake with Temple Kitty and we wandered back down to the road to catch another songtheaw farther up the hill to Bhubing Palace, the winter home of Thai royalty and guest house for important political visitors. The palace grounds were beautifully kept, lined with rose gardens, lush greenery, and beautiful rivers. We particularly loved listening to the creaking of the giant bamboo as it swayed gracefully in the breeze.
As we jumped back into the songtheaw to start out journey back down the mountain, we were joined by the same three tourists as that morning. "Our travel friends!" I exclaimed. They laughed and smiled as they climbed in next to us. Before we could say another word, they said, "Picture!". Looks like we found our people - Jake and I love taking pictures with everyone we meet, even if it was just for a moment! The five of us posed and gave the camera a thumbs up - the stereotypical western sign. For the next 45 minutes we chatted with our new friends! Felix and the two ladies he was with (who didn't speak English) are originally from Beijing. Felix is a system administrator for a computer science firm and lives in Bangkok. They were just visiting Chiang Mai for the weekend. He asked us many questions about our trip and agreed with our sentiments - travel for as long as you can, as often as you can, and do it before you have kids! He has a three year old girl and is grateful for the help of his parents in raising her. All three generations live together, as is traditional in this part of the world. We parted ways at the base of the mountain, and Felix promised to email us the great picture he took.
Time for a nice, relaxing massage…
When in Thailand, one must get a Thai massage…right? After surviving my first (and perhaps only) Thai massage, I'm not so sure I would ever tell someone that they absolutely MUST get one. But hey, if you're a glutton for pain, get crazy! A bunch of massage parlors were all clumped together on a street nearby, so I picked one with the best listed price and walked in to Arisara Thai Massage, where I met my masseuse named Korn. He filled a wooden bath with warm water and lime and washed my feet, and then handed me clothes to change into before showing me upstairs. The massage room was large and had 6 massage mats on the floor. Korn instructed me to lie down on my back. I told him it was my first Thai massage, and he said, "Ok, so medium pressue." Sure, medium sounds good. And Korn got to work, starting with my feet. The next hour was amazing and terrible all at once. Thank goodness I told him "medium" pressure, because there's NO way I would have been able to handle full strength! Who knew that this little man was so strong? When he wasn’t pushing his elbow into my back or walking on my thighs, he was bending and stretching me in every direction. I had no idea I was so flexible. My face must have flinched at one point because he said, "Ok?". "Oh yes," I said, not wanting to wimp out, "It's great!" The best parts were the feet massage and the head massage. Everything else in between made me simultaneously want to bring him back to the US with us and punch him in the face. If I do get any more massages, I think I'll keep it localized to the feet!
Time to climb!
For out last day in wonderful Chiang Mai we set out for an adventure. We'd read about Bua Tong waterfall, aka "Sticky Falls", where people can run up the center of the waterfall without slipping, and had to check it out for ourselves. After a delicious breakfast of jok (rice porridge with fresh grated ginger, scallions, pork meatballs, and a soft boiled egg) and rice soup (with all of the same toppings), and steamed pork buns, we set out to find a songtheaw to take us out to the falls. The waterfall was not close - we expected about an hour drive from the city - and finding a taxi to take us all the way over there, wait while we explored, and then bring us all the way back would be tricky. We had to negotiate a price that was worth it for the driver, without breaking our budget (and based off my negotiating skills at the night markets, I was going to be no use in getting a good price!). We flagged down a songtheaw and started talking to the two men in the front, "1000 bath to go to Sticky Falls." The man in the passenger seat debated it, he knew this was a pretty fair price, high even (based on our research), and translated to the driver. The driver was not impressed, laughed, and drove away. Well that one didn't work. But at least we had a good baseline price! The next songtheaw driver we spoke to had no idea what we were saying or where we were trying to go. We decided to pop into Le Canal Hotel to use their wifi and get the Thai translation pulled up on Google Translate so we could communicate more clearly. Behind the registration desk was a woman named Oom. "We are trying to get a taxi to Bua Tong but are having trouble talking to songtheaw drivers. Can we use your internet?" Instead of leaving us to fend for ourselves, Oom, in true Thai fashion, arranged it all for us without any hesitation. Were we her guests in the hotel? No. Did we buy anything in their coffee shop? No. Did she need to go above and beyond to help us? Definitely not. But she did. Because that's how these wonderful people are. I love the Thai.
She called up her friend, Jan, a tuk tuk driver, and arranged to have him come pick us up and take us on our waterfall adventure for 600 baht. That's half of what we were expecting to pay a songtheaw driver, and we had yet to take a tuk tuk! We were sold! We chatted with her for 10 minutes as we waited for Jan to arrive, and listened to her talk about her impression of large groups of Chinese tourists (she's not thrilled when the large buses pull up). When Jan arrive we thanked her profusely and asked for her name. "Oom, it means to carry a baby!" "Oh yeah, and do you have children?" we asked. "Yes! She is three years old, in kindergarten!" And with that, we were out the door. Thanks, Oom!
Our driver for the day, Jan, seemed to have a permanent smile on his face; and so did we as we zipped around town on the tuk tuk! He zigged and zagged in and out of traffic, sneaking into small gaps in traffic. Before long we were out of the main city and driving through the country side; green, jungle-looking hillsides stretched out before us, rice paddies lined either side of the highway, chickens ran around the edge of the road, every so often a group of food stalls would crop up on the sidewalk. We got to see life outside of the big city, and it was beautiful and simple. Our tour of the country side was a bit longer than we expected. Sure, we stopped to fill up the gas tank, and then we stopped for about 10 minutes for Jan to grab a snack at a roadside stand (we think the real reason for the stop was to visit with friends, he probably didn't go out that way often), and then he missed the turn off for the waterfall. We made a few u-turns and asked for directions from motorbike drivers passing us on the highway, and eventually made it to the waterfall. Our excursion, which should have taken a little over an hour, took a little over two. No bother, though, we have nothing but time! We could see Jan getting more and more distressed as he was lost - removing his hat and rubbing his forehead, talking to himself. Jake leaned forward and told him, "Mai pen rai!", which means no worries, it's all good! Jan laughed, breathed a sigh of relief, and relaxed while we spent an hour exploring the waterfall.
The falls themselves were really cool! Made of porous limestone, the rocks beneath the rushing water aren't slipper at all! The slippery bits are the rocks where the water is still, the mud on the banks of the ankle deep pools, and the tree trunks. So pretty much anywhere we would typically step in order to not slip was dangerous, and anywhere you're usually not supposed to step was safe - so backwards! We descended the wooden steps built into the hillside 70 meters to the bottom of the water fall and started our climb up the middle. It's true - it really was easy to walk up! It wasn't exactly sticky, but in bare feet there was really no way to slip. It felt like walking on a pumice stone. It was definitely a weird feeling! We snapped a few pictures, climbed to the top, and made our way back to our tuk tuk where Jan was waiting for us. The ride home was much less exciting - Jan took a different route - and we made it back in an hour and a half. What a perfect and hilarious adventure to end our Chiang Mai tour! Because the whole trip took much longer than any of us originally anticipated, and because Jan was so wonderful, we tipped him an extra hundred baht, for which he seemed very grateful.
We needed a nice cool snack after sitting in the sun in the back of the tuk tuk for so long, so we headed straight to Tips to see Rem and get a fruit shake. Even though she didn't understand very much English, we told her all about our interesting adventure out to Sticky Falls, a place she's never been even though she's lived in Chiang Mai all her life. She asked us how much it cost to go out there. "Wow! 600 bath! Expensive." she said to us when we told her. That's true, by local standards that was a lot of money. That was Jan's earnings for a days worth of work. For us, it was $20. It was a good reminder to be respectful of cost, of how hard people work, and of how much we can take for granted. We thanked her for making us breakfast and lunch so many times and told her we hoped to see her again someday.
Adios, Chiang Mai!
We packed up our things and said goodbye to Lucky and Ow, our hosts for 9 nights, and had one stop to make before heading to the airport. We just NEEDED to have one more bowl of our favorite khao soi at Sirichai Express! They remembered us when we walked in and quickly brought out too perfect bowls of our favorite meal. We will definitely miss this place! As we enjoyed some fresh coconut ice cream from another vendor, we saw a familiar tuk tuk drive by. It was Jan! What are the odds of seeing him randomly drive by?? In need of a ride to the airport, we walked as fast as we could to catch up to him parked on the side of the road, chatting with friends. "Jan! Our friend!" we laughed as we approached him. In seconds he recognized us, laughed heartily, shook our hands, and turned to his friends and said something. By the way they all laughed and looked at us, it was clear that Jan had told his buddies of our epic adventure the day before. "Can you take us to the airport?" we asked? Moments later Jan was whisking us down the street to Chiang Mai International. What an absolutely perfect way to end our tour of Thailand.
The last three weeks offered so many different experiences. We were overwhelmed with the business of Bangkok, uninspired by the lack of culture on Koh Phi Phi, and completely in love with Chiang Mai. We will definitely return to this fascinating country as we've only just scratched the surface.