Tastes of Northern Thailand

We knew Chiang Mai was going to be a hot spot for all sorts of Thai food, but we’ve been amazed at the variety of what is available within just a few feet of our door. We pass a dozen small restaurants and food stands just to get to the main road where there are dozens more within just a few minutes’ walk. Some are permanent and some pop up on the back a motorcycle or in a parking lot. (TVs are at almost every restaurant, including those that are set up on motorcycle sidecar – just plug in to curbside power and the latest soaps and sports are cued up.) Here are some of our favorite food-related discoveries:

  1. Khao soi. Crunchy, soupy, semi-spicy goodness that seems to capture Northern Thailand in a single dish.
  2. Self-seasoning! No 1-5 stars or presumptions about how spicy you can handle. Sometimes we get asked if we would like spicy or non, and some dishes come with peppers as part of the recipe, but usually the spice levels are low (well, low by Thai standards, so really low-to-moderate by ours), so you can add more to taste. At a local restaurant, there are usually 3 or 4 condiments on the table – sugar, vinegared peppers, lip-burningly-hot crushed and dried pepper flakes, and a jar of fish sauce. Some dishes are served with their own special additions like pieces of lime or peanuts on the side. But the message is: you know how you like your food, so we’ll serve the basic components and you can fine-tune the rest.
  3. Palm sugar! Baking sugar, maple syrup, and stand-alone candy in one. It tops toast, oatmeal, or yogurt at breakfast, and fruit during the day. I’ll admit: I just eat it by the spoonful.
  4. Seaweed- and fish-flavored snacks. Uwajimaya aside, US stores should carry more of these.

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    Crepe-like dessert, palm sugar, snake fruit, tiny bananas!
  5. Noodles. All kinds. Everywhere. Egg noodles, rice noodles, glass noodles, vermicelli, wide noodles, thin noodles, crunchy noodles, noodles in soup. Mostly fresh, not frozen or dried, and stir-fried or boiled to perfection.
  6. Tiny bananas. Sweeter than in the US supermarket and just the right size for snacking and making itty-bitty banana splits.
  7. Rose apples. Crunchy, semi-sweet deliciousness that tastes like apple blossoms, roses, and springtime. Eat it like a regular fruit or add chili powder and sugar for a local touch.
  8. Snake fruit. Strange looking with a thin scaly skin that reveals yellowish flesh that tastes unlike anything I’d tried before. Smooth and sweet-and-sour. You think you’ll eat just one, but then need another.
  9. Pringles-shaped crunchy crepe desserts. Topped with sugared egg white and coconut or sweetened egg yolks (foy tong).

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    Rose apples, fun snack flavors, Thailand-produced wine, khao soi.
  10. Mango sticky rice. Because rice sweetened with coconut milk and sugar with mango is all the dessert you need.
  11. Coffee! Extra sugar, and often extra chocolate. Seattle is no longer looking like the best coffee city.

**Shoutout to the Thai wine industry. Though we consider ourselves wine-lovers, we had no clue that wine grapes were grown in Thailand, but they are in several vineyards near Bangkok and to the south. The wine goes great with Thai food (as you’d expect).

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Wat Prathat Doi Suthep

Like most visitors to Chiang Mai, we also made the trip up to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. Located on a mountain overlooking the city, it is visible as a faintly gold-colored spire and set of buildings during the day and is well-lit at night (just glancing up, we thought it could have been a low-flying airplane except for the brightly lit chedi).

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The Wat is in a national park, so once we passed the zoo on the outskirts of town the number of buildings drops precipitously and the surroundings become jungle. We went on a cloudy, cooler day, but the temperature kept dropping as we climbed, a nice respite from the lowland.

A few fruit stands are situated near viewpoints on the way up and the top is a full-fledged temple complex with market and dozens of food vendors. The temple is separate from most of the hubbub and is up a 300+ step flight of stairs. We paid the foreigner fee for entry at the top and went in. The courtyard is a semi-continuous shoe pile.

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The Wat is an active temple and so many of those visiting are there to worship. The main gilded chedi is in an interior courtyard and many take the time to pray and circle it with a lotus flower. Images of Buddha abound and, like the other Wats, everything is intricately carved, gilded, and painted and flowers and bright fabrics adorn many of the altars and trees around the Wat.

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Offerings of coins can be made by lighting candles and dipping the coin in the dripping wax and then attaching it to a board near one of the altars. Alternately, there are donation boxes for the various needs of the temple complex and the monks.

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There are also bells for devotees to ring and candles kept burning with oil poured onto them by the faithful.

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To the right side of the the main temple is a deck overlooking the city. The airport is visible on the nearer side of town (our temporary home is located a bit to the left of the runway).

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Dogs have a particularly good time near temples in Thailand. They are willing to eat anything visitors drop or give to them and act as a pet/guard dog combo.

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We ate lunch at the market near the bottom of the steps (and paid a higher price to do so, since the day was cooler on the mountain and though the food was not as good as the rest we’ve eaten).

A word about the roads: Driving up is an adventure. We caught a red truck by the Ford dealership near the old city’s north gate. We shared the back with 7 other people (so 9 total on the way up) and were part of a group of 13 on the way down (2 were in the truck’s cab). The road up to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep is three lanes so vehicles having trouble with the grade can go slower. At least that is the theory. In practice, everyone drives in the center, even around blind curves. And there are dozens and dozens of blind curves. Even swerving into oncoming traffic we were being passed by vehicles even farther over the center line.  On the way down a full-sized tour bus was stuck (with rocks under the wheels) on the final blind curve before the Wat. I hope it didn’t cause any other accidents as everyone was veering around it at speed to take the corner in the single remaining lane. Cyclists take on the mountain in high numbers, but I am not as brave as they are.

Daily Life in Chiang Mai

We’ve been in Chiang Mai almost two weeks, and are enjoying the relaxed pace. We generally wander around the city and sightsee in the morning and then head indoors during the hotter afternoon hours and head out again for some local eats at night.

Here is what we do for a lot of the day-to-day basics that people were asking questions about before we left:

Getting around: We walk because that is what we do. Here it is a bit more like hiking – sidewalks are usually narrow and uneven and are often filled with vendors (street food and otherwise, making it hard to go anywhere without wanting to sample barbecued fish, fried chicken, waffles, or fresh fruit), sleeping dogs, parked motorbikes, signs, trees, and electrical wires. Crosswalks are rare, so often we just do what everyone else does: watch for a gap in traffic, try to take into account motorbikes that appear from nowhere, and dart across to the other side. We can catch a red truck back to our apartment for about 60 baht ($2) from anywhere in the old city if we don’t feel like making the return on foot.

Cell phones: It took less than 15 minutes to walk into a DTAC store and equip our phones with local SIMs loaded with enough talk time and internet access for the month.

Water: What comes out of the faucet can be used for doing the dishes and brushing teeth. We drink and cook with bottled water, as locals do. Our apartment came with a case of water, but when we used the last of that yesterday we gathered up the bottles and spare change and went to the nearest bookcase-sized machine that sells filtered and purified water. On our street there are about half a dozen of them, and they charge a couple of cents per liter. I haven’t yet mastered the ability to switch out bottles while the water is still running; my skirt spent the afternoon drying in the window.

Laundry: Often paired with water machines are washers (and machines to allow you to top-up your calling cards and phone plans). The washers are fancier than what we had at our apartment in Seattle – we get to choose from many more settings, some a mystery. Mostly just flip the switch, hit start, and go. The previous person wanted their clothes to come out clean, so this load probably will too.

Fresh fruit & veggies: Just wander down the street and buy what you need! Dozens of vendors are in every direction, and in markets greengrocers are conveniently grouped together, making it easy to compare prices and selection.

Packaged food & meats: Head to any number of grocery stores, from the 5 small & locally run ones on our street or to chains like 7-Eleven and Tops. Snack foods are big, so chips and crunchy treats are for sale practically everywhere. But wine, dairy (especially cheese and milk), western-style bread, and cereal are harder to find and as or more expensive than in the U.S. The food I miss most is large quantities of chocolate. Candy bars are sold at most grocery stores, but are imported and relatively expensive. They don’t hold up well in the summer (or winter) heat and there are other local sweet treats to try. Still, chocolate was a big part of my diet and the single-candy-bar-every-couple-of-days approach leaves me wanting more.

Meals: We sometimes cook breakfast at home (eggs), but other meals are cheaper out. Especially if you are looking for pad thai or common cuisine like fried rice or khao soi, just go to a street kitchen. The typical one has a hole-in-the-wall feel – 8 or 10 tables, plastic chairs, and a picture menu hung on the wall or on the sign out front (though many also have laminated menus in Thai and English); food is made with the produce and meat on display in the front of the restaurant. The best food we’ve eaten here (and there has been a lot of it) has all come from these restaurants.

Entertainment: Wandering around the city is about all you need – there are Wats, open-air markets, shops, and restaurants everywhere. Our cable has two English channels – one German and one Japanese, both with a thankfully small amount of US election coverage. But we also (clearly) have the internet and access to it is fast and cheap.

Language barrier: Hellos and thank yous in Thai and smiles seem to get most points across, as do polite pointing and questioning looks. Most salespeople are able to quote prices in English or written Arabic numerals; if they are unsure, they just pull out a calculator. I learned to count to a hundred in Thai today in hopes of making markets simpler.

Ants: Everywhere we’ve been in the tropics has ants (I’m looking at you Hawaii), and Thailand is no exception. Even on the third floor, the tiny critters find their way inside (leaving out a plate with the remnants of barbecued chicken was not the best idea, though it sat on the table for less than an hour).  We keep things in the fridge as much as possible, wash the few dishes we have immediately, and use this wonderful ant-slaying chalk that is apparently illegal in the US (because kids). Just chalk up a corner or sill and the ants drop in itty-bitty heaps on the floor.

How to pay for stuff: It is generally expected that cash will be used for transactions; we paid for our apartment in advance, so most of what we buy costs relatively little. ATMs that willingly take U.S. cards are everywhere, so we get a few days worth of baht and then break the larger bills at grocery stores and use the change for meals at smaller restaurants or for individual items from the market. The most useful denomination is 20 baht (the smallest bill) – most meals and cab fares are priced in multiples of this. The 1-10 baht coins are saved for laundry and filling water jugs.

In general: Chiang Mai wakes up slowly in the morning and comes alive in the evening when people go out to eat and see friends and neighbors. In the morning our corner of the city wakes up to planes, the local dog pack, and bird and insect calls. We catch whiffs of tropical jungle coming through the windows. That scent can be replaced by exhaust (like in any city) and sometimes by a sewery odor (while sewers are covered, run-off drains are not always and these are used often used for dishwater and water from street and floor cleaning). Chiang Mai is a very international city, and that makes it easy to navigate, fit in, find people to talk to (even to see Star Wars in English on opening weekend), and find places that remind us of home (Beer Lab carries Deschutes and Rouge beers and we’ve seen Snoqualmie wine from Washington for sale).

 

Wat Suan Dok

The Wat nearest our apartment is the beautiful Wat Suan Dok on Suthep Road. Also home to a Buddhist university, it is common to see monks in the streets  (and even the local 7-Elevens) – and this is true with most of Chiang Mai since there are dozens of Wats in the city.

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Wat Suan Dok was built in the 14th century and houses a relic of the Buddha that duplicated itself as it was being placed in the chedi (stupa). The second replica is now housed at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, on a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai.  Later this week we hope to take a red truck up there as well.

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The northern gate facing Suthep Road

Since it receives far fewer visitors than the Wats in the City Center, the grounds  of Wat Suan Dok were peaceful and the main temple even more so.

As is the custom, we removed our shoes before entering the main building. Far from feeling odd, it is a nice reminder that you are in a different type of space. The building is much cooler than the bright day outside, and the tiles are nice  and cool underfoot. We made sure to dress conservatively, much like we would at a church service, since many Wats require that knees and shoulders be covered. Also, when entering and exiting, it is polite to step over the threshold rather than on it. This also goes for most other buildings – entryways often have raised thresholds as a reminder, or the floor will be slightly offset in height from the outside ( this includes the front door of our apartment building as well as between most of the different rooms within our apartment.)

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Standing Buddha facing the gilded chedi

We came in a side door; the standing Buddha is at the back of the building. The seated Buddhas face east toward the main entrance and have a long hall in front of them that adds to the sense of space. On either side are seats for monks and donation boxes for contributions to restoration/groundskeeping funds and to assist the monks and students at the Wat.

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Most of the interior’s intricate detail is red and gilded gold, though the supporting pillars are blue mosaic and gold. Small mirrors are embedded and add to the overall ornateness. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling  and are lit with CFL bulbs at night.

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Outside behind the hall, the chedi is over 150 feet tall. It was gilded in the last decade and is easily spotted from several points around the neighborhood. Dogs are allowed to wander freely around the temple grounds and are more or less indifferent to visitors during the day (though I suspect some of them are part of the pack that occasionally makes quite a racket around our neighborhood at night). Small bells on the roof of the buildings ring faintly with the slightest movement of air.

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An area near the chedi houses the remains of royalty. These relics were gathered to this spot in 1906 at the wish of the Princess. Many small, bright white mausoleums fill the northwest side of the courtyard.

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After seeing the Wat, we wandered west to a market near the corner of Suthep Road and the ring road and we picked up fruit and fried chicken from the vendors. Everything is fresh, including eggs (which, like Europe, are not washed, meaning they can be kept without refrigeration), veggies, spices, meat (cut to your specifications), and all sorts of freshly fried, boiled, and grilled treats. Stands with each type of product are generally grouped together, making it easy to compare prices and products. Motorbikes dart in and out of the narrow lanes, stopping only where they are blocked by tables of goods. It feels chaotic to us, but it seems like all the locals know just where to go for what they need.

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9 Fresh eggs about $.77USD… no box needed!

 

Thai Orchid Cookery School

Today we spent the day learning how to make delicious Thai dishes at the Thai Orchid Cookery School in the Old Town of Chiang Mai.

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Spring roll success!

Our instructor was A, who showed our group of 8 how to make a full Thai meal from a selection of choices. For me that included fresh spring roll appetizers, chicken in coconut soup, panang curry,  pad thai with prawns,  and steamed banana cake.

We jumped right in by heating veggies and sauce for spring rolls – just ignore the messy folding technique on my part and they are perfect. A showed us how to make stock for the soups using shrimp and veggies, so all we had to do was add a few final ingredients and we were set. It goes much quicker than the heavier stews and soups I am used to that simmer all day – just a few minutes to get the flavors in (and some more potent ingredients only go in for the last 10-15 seconds) and you are done and ready to eat!

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To break up the day, we went on a tour of the local market to see what the ingredients look like whole and a lesson on how to tell the some of the similar ones apart (three types of basil, for instance, and different gingers).

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Cooking goodies!

imageA was also thoughtful enough to have samples of various fruits, so I can now cross trying durian off my list. It wasn’t as bad as I’d been led to believe, but it also isn’t a food I feel the need to try again.  To me, it tastes a bit like something molding – a sewer or rotten silage perhaps. On the other hand, rose apples (crunchy and not too sweet, often eaten with a sugar and chili powder mix) and custard apples (sweet and creamy) were delicious and I’ll be looking for those in our future shopping.

We spent the first part of the afternoon producing the two main courses for our lunch – the panang curry and quick-cooking pad thai. Honestly, I can’t believe I produced an entire meal!  Normally, Hamburger Helper is beyond my skill level, so it was a testament to the great instruction that everything was yummy and I didn’t burn or under/overseason my dishes. (Poor Kevin – the one time I cooked a meal, and he still had to make his own food!) Of course, I don’t even have an excuse not to try these at home since we received a cookbook with all the recipes and ingredient information. I guess I might need to invest in an apron in the future…

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Look, I cooked!

This class made me suspect I am even more of a spice/pepper wuss than I thought – A insists that most Thais can handle between 5 and 10 of the super-hot bird’s eye peppers in their curries… I only put one in the dishes where they were used…and I didn’t even slice it, just smashed it with the flat side of the knife to bring out a hint of flavor. I’ll have to try and up my game since I don’t want to keep embarrassing myself when we eat out!

Chicago to Chiang Mai

The adventure begins!

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Everything we plan to have for the trip fits in one checked bag and one carry-on and weighs less than 40 pounds/person.

Boarding the December 6 Cathay Pacific flight from O’Hare to Hong Kong, we flew north through Wisconsin (and a bumpy jet stream), Canada, and over the frozen Arctic Ocean, and then south over Russia, Mongolia, and China before landing in Hong Kong. Though most of the route was flown in darkness, and we kept the plane windows mostly closed so people could sleep, we did get some great views of the ice cap and the Lena River drainage  and Verkhoyansk Mountain Range in Russia. Siberia was already well snowed over, making the northern tundra look eerily similar to images of Tombaugh Regio on Pluto or something that belongs in a whimsical coloring book.

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The Lena River

Two meals, five movies, and one newspaper were consumed en route.

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Since we had a 12-hour layover in Hong Kong (and arrived at 8 p.m. local time), we opted to stay at the local SkyCity Marriott, which turned out to be decorated for Christmas with trees and life-sized gingerbread houses.

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Despite the close proximity to the airport, we took a shuttle, and had our first taste of other-sided road-driving… only mildly disorienting.

We were on the first shuttle back to the HKIA (which turned out to be unnecessary since the departures doesn’t really pick up until after 8 a.m.). The airport is on a separate island from the most picturesque views of Victoria Harbour and the main downtown, but we still could see dozens of skyscraper condos on the surrounding islands from the terminal. Once we took off we had a good (if hazy) view of Tuen Mun, a city inside the New Territories bordering Shenzhen.

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Flying was cloudy most of the way to Chiang Mai, Thailand, but we had some good views of the lush tropical hills and mountains that surround the city. Despite the shorter (this one ran just over 3 hours and 995 miles) flight, DragonAir supplied two choices of breakfast. The dim sum was decent, and  we chalked up dragonfruit as the first new food of the trip (tastes like kiwi or a smoother-textured watermelon). We landed at Chiang Mai just after 10:30 local time on December 8, having lost about a day in transit and another by crossing the International Date Line.

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We rented an apartment north of the airport, and were picked so we didn’t even have to worry about directions!

As of today, our current apartment is a simply furnished one-bedroom with wi-fi, cooking supplies, and a/c (should we decide we need it).We are off the main roads in a very quiet neighborhood. Tropical birds like mynas (with bright-yellow-rimmed eyes that make them look a little sinister), song sparrows, pigeons, and roosters start singing about 6 a.m., which is when Chiang Mai’s airport also wakes up (the city is under the flight path, but there are no flights between midnight and 6).

Settling in was straightforward – ATMs are all over and it took just two tries to find one that would happily take our card and was operational (a better record than Amsterdam). Street food is everywhere as are small, family-owned groceries and chains like Tops and 7-11. SIMs for cell phones are sold in quantities made for tourists (a 7- or 30-day card, for example).

English is a common second spoken and written language as there is a large tourist industry and many ex-pats living here. We learned a few basic phrases in Thai and that has gotten us through so far.

To end for today, here is Pete who was living in our shower drain until he was released to freedom outside:

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