After a few bites of breakfast at the buffet and a few final minutes on wi-fi, we loaded into a couple of vans and headed to the Chiang Mai airport for our flight South to Bangkok. Our day looks easy on paper, but the best laid plans do not always work out in practice.
Chiang Mai seems to have evolved for tourism. Days do not start too early, so visitors can remain awake through the wee hours. Shops, restaurants, and even temples cater to those who need a souvenir of their journey. Still, we would try to stick to the high quality attractions as much as possible.
We left Chiang Mai under cover of darkness for the hill tribe village of Mae Sa Mai where a dozen Hmong tribes would gather for the big festival day. As we wound our way up the hill, a man stopped us in the road well before the village explaining that all the parking already was taken two hours before. So much for being early.
After my usual routine of passing out fully clothed, a few hours later I awoke to find myself still much too full. My body seemed to be rebelling against eating ever larger quantities. I would need to take a break.
We would bid farewell to chilly Pai and brave the twisty highway to Chiang Mai, the major city of the North and a magnet for handicraft shoppers. Like us. In past years I’ve snuck out to a local restaurant for karaoke one night after dinner, but with our unusual schedule (Tuesday we rise before dawn to drive to the Hmong village of Mae Sa Mai for the New Year celebration) I don’t know whether that will be possible this time.
Chiang Mai (January 17, 2010)
We departed at 8:00am for our visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, located at the top of a nearby mountain where, legend has it, a white elephant chose the spot for the temple. It is said that if you didn’t visit this temple, you didn’t visit Chiang Mai. Despite the hyperbole, it’s an unusually cool temple. And there are some really good restaurants nearby.
Chiang Mai (January 16, 2010)
We gathered at 8:00am to walk the extensive morning market, snacking on various “breakfasty” items along the way. Our first stops were at street carts selling khanom krok and grilled sour sausages on a stick. Next up were fried bananas, fried yams, and Thai-style waffles, followed by coconut pancakes, yam balls, and slices of spicy sausage with strong herbal flavors. At one corner we had an opportunity to sample some fried bamboo worms, silk worms, and other creatures. The worms were not very tasty; the beetles and other leggy beasts looked too disturbing to eat. I couldn’t help thinking there was so much great food that no one should feel any need to eat bugs.
Chiang Mai (January 15, 2010)
We gathered at 8:00am for breakfast, walking to a nearby street dominated by Chinese muslim merchants. The menu included turmeric rice with a choice of chicken or goat, and a couple choices of noodle soups. The goat was tender and a bit rich, like a beef shank. Even though the rice made it a filling room, we had to try a few specialties from the local market as well. The first was a mysterious pancake with a chewy texture; it seemed to have some corn flavor (consistent with its yellow color), but must also have contained wheat or rice to account for its glutinous quality. The flavor was pleasant, but the accompany falafel-like balls with a sweet-hot red dipping sauce were much more impressive. Flavored with fresh herbs and fried up light and fluffy, we could have eaten another order. For dessert (yes, with breakfast) we shared the local roti which, mercifully, did not have as much sugar and sweetened condensed milk as the ones in Mae Hong Son.
Pai (January 14, 2010)
Many of us awoke to the sounds of men partying in the dining room until 1:15am and cats yowling at 1:30am, but we managed to get through the night on the resort’s hard beds, survived the showers of variable warmth, and made it to the breakfast buffet for a choice of chicken fried rice, chicken fried noodles, pork meatball porridge, and Western items. The fruit still wasn’t very good, but one light meal probably is a good idea. After all, we have plenty of snacks in the vans.
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).
Today we would visit Wat Prathat Doi Suthep, the nearby mountaintop temple so well known that it is said you haven’t been to Chiang Mai if you didn’t see this temple. Along the way, we stopped for breakfast at a noodle shop with cushy booths, to have our choice of fried noodles or soup noodles. The beef soup was well flavored and the meat with tasty; even the crunchy tendon wasn’t bad. A little fruit chaser and we were on our way.
For breakfast we strolled to the morning market — completely distinct from the night bazaar — and grabbed our meal from various carts, eating on our feet along sidewalks and busy aisles. Fresh jackfruit segments first, then deep fried bananas and yams, gooey yam balls, oily but tasty coconut pancakes, corn fritters, sticky rice with chilli-sugar ground dried shrimp, pork rinds with green chilli paste, sour sausage on a stick, and more. Eventually we made our way to the cart where a woman served up scoops of homemade young coconut “slush.” We chartered a little bus (with benches for 5 facing each other in a tall camper-shell-like enclosure) and sped back to the hotel.
After breakfast, we began a marathon tour of shopping destinations across Chiang Mai. At the silk place, we read about the lifecycle of the silk worm and nice sales ladies suggested various overpriced items, available today at a discount. At the silver place, we watched a workman pound intricate patterns into a piece of metal, and then shopped among various overpriced items while nice sales ladies suggested their possible uses. I actually was not able to resist a silver bowl here; it must be the elephants. We visited another celdaon factory whose products were not quite up to the standard we had seen yesterday, but whose prices were even more affordable. And we visited an antique shop or two where the nice stuff was well out of range. We were beat.
If anything, the road from Pai to Chiang Mai is even twistier and has more altitude changes than the road from Mae Hong Son to Pai. After about 90 minutes we stopped at a tea shop for another tasting and a brief glimpse into the tea-making process. Our proprietor poured a locally grown Chinese style black tea and a locally grown green tea (with a more Japanese character). In the back, a man was wilting tea leaves in a drum rotating over a fire. The leaves moved from one pile on the floor, into the drum and back out again, and then were swept into another pile on the floor. It was not obvious that this was something you would want in your mouth. Too late, we had already tasted. Anyway, there was little time to dally. A few purchases and we were on our way.
On our final morning in Sukhothai, we stopped at a local noodle place for a breakfast of duck noodle soup. We then wandered the local market (adjacent to the temple) and nearby streets looking for anything of interest. I tried some warm corn and potato balls which were a bit too dense and mild to recommend. We headed back to the main highway for our journey North.