Wats and Woks: 5 Days in Chiang Mai
Surrounded by an old moat and the crumbling remains of a city wall, Chiang Mai is the cultural capital of northern Thailand. Narrow cobble-stoned soi lead to small cafes and glittering wats, the sun gleaming off their mirror-tiled walls.
An overnight sleeper train journey from Bangkok—and, we realized shortly upon boarding the train, there is no other way to travel—Chiang Mai is cooler, cleaner and less hectic than the capital city. We spent five enjoyable days there, running out the remainder of our visa.
Since it was our last stop in Thailand, we felt we should finally join the thousands of Thais and foreign visitors in zipping along the streets on motorbikes. We rented a trusty automatic Honda, and made our way along 16 kilometers of winding road to Doi Suthep, a large temple in the forest. A huge gleaming gold pagoda rose from the center of the temple grounds, surrounded by an intricate courtyard. People knelt around the perimeter, smoke curling from the incense in their hands.
Nate was having a great time driving the motorbike, while I was perched on the back, and, I’m sorry to say, petrified. Having no control over when and how fast we turned, I kept envisioning a horrific crash splattering us across the pavement. Yes, I realize that everyone from old ladies to small schoolchildren weave through traffic on them, but I couldn’t help it. Eventually, I was able to loosen up a bit and enjoy the ride. But next time, I am getting my own!
Halfway through our stay in Chiang Mai we enrolled in a cooking class with Thai Farm Cooking School, and the following day we piled into a truck with a handful of other travelers bound for their organic farm. Rows of herbs and vegetables, bright flowering trees, and a pond filled with lily pads surrounded their open-air teaching kitchens— a very pleasant setting to spend a day away from the city.
First, our extremely friendly instructor walked us through the gardens, letting us taste and smell different kinds of basil, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and assorted vegetables endemic to Thai cuisine. We were acquainted with chilies, galangal, Thai ginseng— staples in Thai curries— and the mysterious pea-like vegetables we kept discovering in restaurant dishes, which turned out to be bitter eggplant. Seeing what the raw ingredients look like in the garden before they end up on our plates was half the fun.
Back in the kitchen, we pounded fresh chilies, cumin and coriander seeds, and herbs into curry paste before boiling it with coconut milk and vegetables. Next up was pad si ew, pad thai, and cashew chicken, among other things, making for a total of five dishes each—a monstrous amount of food.
Stuffed, we took much of our food home in what our instructor proclaimed Thai Tupperware: small plastic bags.
As the weekend drew to a close, we made our way to the Sunday Walking Street, a full kilometer of city street that closes down to traffic each Sunday. Stalls selling art, textiles, t-shirts, and all manner of crafts—as well as tasty treats—line both sides of the road, and often make a third row in the middle. Musicians and dancers perform wherever they can find a space. Hordes of people, Thai and foreign alike, descend on the stretch of road, inching slowly along and snacking as they browse goods.
No discussion of Chiang Mai would be complete without mentioning our favorite part: these guys.
Once we discovered the husband and wife (presumably) duo, we went back each day for their delectable roti. Small circles of airy dough fried in enough oil to make your arteries give up, drizzled in condensed coconut milk and sprinkled with sugar, they are a heavenly cross between fried dough and naan. How we will miss them!
By our last few days in Chiang Mai we noticed a feeling as though something were missing. We readily admit that this is mostly our own fault as we visited some of the most popular sights in Thailand, but throughout our month here we didn’t really get to see much of everyday Thai life. Most of the places and people we encountered lived off of tourism, making us the focus of attention in a way we did not relish. Both in transit and at our destinations, we often felt contained in a big tourist bubble, with whole areas being built around us and our fellow visitors. The heavily visited areas in Thailand have embraced tourism in such a way that they barely felt like the Thailand we came to see.
That said, we have had fantastic moments and seen countless gorgeous places in Thailand, from the breathtaking beaches of the south to the jungles of Khao Sok and temple-studded Chiang Mai in the north. All in all, we have loved our time here.
Upon crossing the Mekong in a cool rain into Laos yesterday, there was a noticeable difference. Today, a bus ride to Luang Nam Tha took us through tiny hillside villages. Livestock wandered at will along the roadside, women in woven skirts carried bags slung across their backs, farmers tended fields, children played soccer and bocce in schoolyards. It was refreshing to see people just living their lives without a care to our passing. As we wove up a winding road, higher and higher into the forested mountains, we felt far from home—in a good way.