No time for boredom, Chiang Mai, Thailand
You could spend a lifetime in Chiang Mai and never run out of things to do – temple-hopping, cooking classes, yoga classes, open conversation classes with monks, thai massages, foot spas, elephant shows, shopping, late nights out, early morning markets, chilled juice bars, local national parks, sacred peaks, floating on the resevoir, jungle adventures, minority tribe visits, off-road biking, uphill hiking and the endless hunt for the best curry in town. Somehow the words “I’m bored” just aren’t a part of this vibrant city’s dialogue.
It is for all these reasons and half a dozen more that Chiang Mai is the perfect gateway into Thailand and a pretty convincing destination of its own. With more depth than the islands at less than half the price, the capital of the north is the kind of place you can sink your teeth into. The kind of place where you can kick off your flip-flops, pull up a chair and really get to know the locals. Indeed it is the locals that make the city so open and welcoming – locals who spend their days lounging in their shopfronts chattering with neighbours and their evenings devouring mango and sticky rice at the local market with family and friends.
While it may seem all those smiling faces are part of one big Thai-speaking club though, it is not an exclusive club as we learned one night on our way home. Wandering down the street after a scrumptious market dinner we were suddenly faced with a huge crowd of local people who were singing and dancing on the street. Emerging from their ranks were ten or so brightly coloured floats on sticks. Homemade from crepe paper and sticky glue, the humble floats were bobbing in time to the music, rattling, jingling and swishing their way towards a local temple. Captivated, we stood at the edge of the crowd smiling at performers who seemed happy enough to burst and wishing for the hundredth time that we were part of their club.
Well, you should be careful what you wish for because two minutes later we were being hustled by a group of middle-aged women in matching outfits onto the street and into the beating heart of the celebration. Hopping from one foot to the other and grinning manically at everyone who caught out eyes, we copied our hostesses moves, wriggling our hips, waving our elbows, twisting our wrists and pinching our fingers together until we looked like a bad Bollywood film. Just as we started to run out of breath the procession finally reached the temple gates where we took our leave as the crowd hollered their way into the gilded temple and, with a backwards wink, set about the serious business of celebrating Buddha. Breathless and hyperactive after our initiation into the club, we floated home, raving about those moments that remind you why you started travelling in the first place.
Continuing the theme of hopping on the bandwagon, we signed up to a full-day cookery course in Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School and started our fast. After all, we were going to need all the help we could get if we were going to eat five dishes in one sitting. Over the course of the day we would learn how to make thai green curry from scratch (paste included), tom yam soup, spring rolls, steamed and sticky rice and my all-time favourite Thai dish, mango and sweet sticky rice.
The course started in a local market where we were introduced to all the ingredients we would be working with during the day and some massive vats of the final ingredients. Even at 9am they smelled delicious. We were introduced to our instructor Max – another adorable local kid who said his name was short for “Maximum, as in maximum size” even though he was far from it. How, I thought, could you be so tiny with so much delicious food surrounding you at every second? Fragrant curries, wonderfully greasy fried chicken wings, juicy fruit, charcoal grilled meat kebabs, coconuty sticky rice, buttery chocolate rotis and so much delicious pad thai…. Thailand, a country where curry is a breakfast or lunch meal but definately not a dinner dish, is not the kind of place to watch your figure. And when a plate of Pad Thai sets you back less than a dollar, why should you?
So anyway, back to the farm where Max is taking us on a tour of the crops, following everything up (struggling desperately against a smug smirk) with “You don’t have this in your country, no? It is too cold.” “Thai ginger, you don’t have this.” “Coconut, this not grow.” “Green papaya, you buy from my country.” This continues in the kitchen when we take one glance at our ingredients and realise that we will not be able to buy half of this in Ireland. “How much of it can we replace with potatoes?” we wonder until Max swoops to the rescue. “You can’t find Thai ginger? Use more lemongrass. No kaffir lime? More lemongrass. Out of chicken? Just toss in a little more lemongrass!” Lemongrass, it seems, is the solution to all of life’s problems.
After some vigourous chopping, pounding, crushing, dicing, frying, marinating, boiling, steaming and a few cheap laughs (“When stirring use little finger of left hand. If you need more salt, use one on right hand” says Max, sticking his finger up his nose to demonstrate. “The things you can do with those fingers” says one overweight, middle-aged American breathlessly to a chorus of immature giggles from the class) we plop heavily into our seats around the table, take off our sombreroes and start the very serious business of eating.
I won’t lie, it wasn’t the best food I have ever eaten. My curry paste was still leafy, my tom yam soup was too spicy and my spring rolls were so loosely wrapped that they were half-full of seasame oil. The mango and sticky rice however, was absoulte perfection (although I do acknowledge that all I did was add some coconut cream to a bowl of sticky rice). Full up to bursting point, we gave our leftovers to the cat who was looking a little worse for wear afterwards….
Before we left Chiang Mai we met up with our oldest travel buddies Dan and Ash – by now firm secondary characters in the story of yearlongbreakup. The night started out pretty normally – them filling us in on their four new travel buddies, the woes of securing an Indian visa and a story involving Connect Four and some hookers and us raving about elephant welfare (yep – still on that buzz). A few ill-advised Chang beers later however, and the scene was a little different. Ash, paranoid after spotting the Thai girl who had stolen his camera’s memory card when he went home with her last night, fled the bar screaming something about not paying for sex while Gary and I argued heatedly (and ignorantly) about Buddhism and Dan tried to break it up whilst securing an invitation to the wedding.
Whatever it says on the bottle – Chang is not 6.4% alcohol and Changovers are not fun.
More pictures from Chiang Mai are available in the gallery