Every year, Kasma Loha-Unchit leads groups of her cooking students and other fans of Thai cuisine on trips to Northern Thailand. Highlights include exploration of UNESCO World Heritage sites; cultural exchange in “hill tribe” villages; shopping in vast markets featuring fresh fruit, vegetables and prepared foods; riding an elephant; and eating lots of delicious Thai food. For a general overview of the experience of traveling with Kasma, see Visiting Thailand with Kasma Loha-Unchit.
What to Expect on the Northern Trip (Trip “B”)
The 19-day Northern trip typically starts in late December. The Fall trip combines the Northern trip with a brief visit to the South. Here are a few notes about the Northern trip from one visitor’s perspective, based on taking the trip in January 2008 (and updated after a second trip taken in January 2010).
Once you leave Bangkok, where restaurants draw on the full range of Thai cuisine, the dishes tend to feature more local ingredients and flavors. In the Northern cities of Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, menus feature less from the ocean and more from the fields and streams. River prawns, freshwater fish, and chicken have their place, but the star of the show is pork: ground and sliced in salads, roasted, deep fried, tossed in stir fries, stewed in curries, and adorning noodles. In each meal, cooks demonstrate the remarkable versatility of this ingredient we blandly describe as “the other white meat.”
At breakfast, the range of choices may be limited. If the hotel does not offer a buffet, trip members might stop at a noodle shop or sample various savory and sweet nibbles in a market. At dinner, Kasma usually will order a soup, a salad or two, and several other dishes. A server typically will load your plate with rice, and then you can choose as much or as little of each dish as you like, family style. Lunches may entail a visit to a simple noodle shop, or a truck stop, or a spread as lavish as a dinner. We never went hungry, and there were always opportunities to snack in the afternoon to tide us over to dinner.
Even in January, Bangkok is hot and humid, and the sun scorches the central plain. As we climbed into the foothills, the temperature cooled, and nights in misty mountain valleys could be quite chilly. Chiang Mai is warm and pleasant in the early dry season, well before farmers start to burn their fields in preparation for planting. For this trip, it is useful to bring layers, as you would advise a friend traveling to San Francisco in the Summer.
It is advisable to pick up some Thai baht at the airport, and you can top up your wallet at ATMs in most towns. Some ATMs may charge an extra fee for U.S. cards. Shops in the smaller towns may not accept credit cards, so cash is useful for shopping (especially from roadside craft vendors), as well as for beer, smoothies, bottled water, and other extras.
Some of the hotels have wi-fi hotspots in their lobbies, where you can connect your laptop and at certain times of day, provide sustenance for mosquitoes. It is generally more convenient to use an internet shop in town ($1-2/hour), but you need to be cautious about the possibility of spyware: online banking would not be recommended. Except at one resort, and at various points winding through the mountains, there was steady mobile phone data service at EDGE (slow) or GPRS (slower) speed.
- Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. In the 14th and 15th Centuries, these cities were the heart of the “original” Thai kingdoms. While the ruined temple compounds of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites show their age — and the legacy of attacks and invasions — they remain impressive.
- Mae Hong Son. Located in mountainous country near the Burmese border, a peaceful resort in Mae Hong Son provides a comfortable base for day trips to villages of Hmong, Karen, and Lisu hill tribes, as well as river rafting, an elephant ride, and cave exploration.
- Chiang Mai. Located at the center of historic trading routes, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s handicrafts center. Besides its extensive markets, excellent restaurants, and beautiful temples, Chiang Mai offers the conveniences of a major city on a more human scale. A great place to “catch up” with shopping and email.
Travel Tips: Packing & What to Bring
I find it difficult to travel light, even after weeks of lugging and hefting and unpacking and repacking bags. You can read a wide variety of recommendations in guide books and in Kasma’s letter and FAQs. The following are my additional thoughts.
- Footwear. Although the Northern trip does not visit the beach, your feet may get wet on boat and raft trips. Waterproof sandals or the like are a good choice for these occasions. Most walks are on well established trails, but on occasion the additional traction of a running shoe is beneficial. It’s best to purchase and test the fit of all footwear before the trip.
- Power adapters. Thailand uses 220V AC outlets with a plug shape compatible with standard U.S. two-prong plugs. Many, but not all, can accommodate the larger blade on a polarized plug. Since many rooms have only one or two outlets, if you have many devices to recharge, you might want to pick up a multi-tap or power strip when you arrive in Thailand, or order one rated for 220V from an online source.
- Cameras and accessories. It’s a good idea to bring your battery charger and a spare battery, as these may be very difficult to find outside of Bangkok and Chiang Mai.