Jan 182010

Chiang Mai (January 18, 2010)

Our drivers were well on their way to Bangkok by now, so we took the hotel’s dilapidated van to the airport — after a quick bite of congee and fried noodles from the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Security at Chiang Mai International didn’t require shoe or laptop removal, and no one cared about the weight of my backpack. Thus, the lines moved swiftly and we had plenty of time to watch (but we could not really hear) the telecast of the Golden Globe Awards, and to check out the local English-language paper. While our 747 was packed with passengers, the Thai Airways cabin crew was very efficient and dispatched a snack and hot and cold beverages with a smile. I’m fairly certain this was my first creamed spinach sandwich (if that’s what it was), and it wasn’t bad. I passed the time by reading Buddha, by Karen Armstrong. I’ll probably have a better chance of finishing it this week or on the less hectic Southern trip. Whether I personally will be any more enlightened seems doubtful: extinguishing the ego sounds like hard work.

Bangkok (January 18, 2010)

Arrival at the domestic terminal differs quite radically from the international terminal. After deplaning, we took a set of exterior stairs to a bus, which brought us to another building where we had to locate baggage claim. All went well and we met up with our drivers and Kasma’s husband Michael, ready for our next meal.

Aw Taw Kaw market is an upscale source of fresh and prepared foods, spices, kitchenwares, and other necessities. Renowned as the place that celebrities shop, the prices are higher than other markets we have visited, but the wide aisles, bright lighting, dry floors, and higher end treats make it a very worthwhile stop. After taking orders for duck over rice, a mussel omelet, or pad thai wrapped in an omelet (my selection), Kasma swept through the market picking up extra courses, such as khanom krok (very crispy, with a perfect texture, but perhaps a bit heavy on the green onions); sour sausage balls; BBQ chicken with the characteristic sweet and mildly hot dipping sauce; yam balls; and pork-on-a-stick, which I expect to be one of my staple foods during the next few days of feeding myself. We examined the various durian available in the market and chose a mid-level grade for sampling. With its custardy texture and complex blend of oniony-herbal-sweet flavors, durian has never been one of my favorites. Of course, the more sulfurous smelling frozen ones available in the U.S. do not even compare to a fresh, ripe specimen, so it’s unlikely I will be having it again after the trip. I picked up a small bag of freeze-dried jackfruit chips for immediate enjoyment; I’ll be back at this market after the Southern trip for my take-home supply.

After checking back in to the Grand Tower, I headed over to Hatthai massage for some lower body work. The foot massage, which devotes about 45 minutes to the feet and lower legs and 15 minutes to the arms, shoulders, and neck, costs considerably more here than in the competitive night bazaar. But from the first painful squeezes, you can tell this is not a cheap tourist massage. I’m not sure whether reflexology can cure a cold, but I’ve got my fingers crossed, or bent over backwards, as the case may be.

Our final feast usually features some performers that Kasma has followed around the city from one restaurant to the next. However, due to a change of players, the aggravation of evening traffic is no longer justified, and we will dine instead at Vientiane Kitchen, which is walking distance from the hotel and has its own singers and dancers. The band members were just warming up as we arrived.

As its name suggests, Vientiane Kitchen specializes in Northeastern Thai and Laotian dishes, and we would have many. We started with the classic green papaya salad, dressed with a spicy lime-based dressing and bits of salted crab. We also had a fried eggplants salad, featuring sections of long green eggplant sliced lengthwise, lightly breaded, and fried, and topped with a meat sauce, probably of pork. Great change-up. A soup of leafy greens and mushrooms was made special with the addition of ant larvae, bright white and looking like miniature jelly beans. They popped in your mouth, but the contents didn’t have an offensive flavor (or much flavor at all). A deep-fried pork leg, sliced to include crispy skin and a generous portion of fat with each chunk of meat, was offered with a spicy green dipping sauce. They do this dish very, very well. A crying tiger beef salad, on the other hand, could have used a richer cut (like rib eye). Finally, a fried fish, topped with larb seasonings, filled out the meal and our stomachs. I had to skip dessert.

The band and the dancers put on quite a show. (Vientiane Kitchen House Band on YouTube) Meanwhile, the stage act became more interactive — and several trip members participated. A good time was had by all.

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At some point, we made the traditional presentation of tips to our drivers. The envelopes are lighter than usual because there are only seven on this trip rather than twelve, but hopefully the fact that they found us very amusing provides partial recompense for the difference.

We stumbled back to the hotel and said some goodbyes. It’s an early departure for those not continuing on the Southern trip, but I’m hoping to grab some photos in the AM. And some baht.

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