PART 4: CHIANG MAI – OUR HAPPY PLACE
Remember everything I told you about Bangkok? Go ahead: scratch it, flip it and reverse it. Then and only then can you start to understand Chiang Mai. Located in the North of Thailand, this city has everything you would ever want for a perfect vacation: amazing weather, beautiful natural scenery, kind welcoming locals, incredible and most importantly cheap food and markets – lots and lots of markets at every hour of the day and night.
We arrived on a Friday evening from Vietnam after a short layover in Bangkok. Transportation from the airport was arranged by our Airbnb host. We were expecting either a small taxi or a Honda or Toyota which we saw all throughout Asia. Instead, we were greeted by a songthaew – a red open-sided pick up truck taxi. We hopped in and held on tight to our suitcases so they didn’t fall out as we cruised through the streets of Chiang Mai. The cool 70s breeze, the aromas of street vendors making delicious chilli-infused stir frys and the mounds of people outdoors enjoying the night told me this was just the place to end our hectic whirlwind tour of Asia.
We dropped off our stuff at our out-of-the-city Airbnb and quickly headed back in. Me being me, I looked up Anthony Bourdain’s guide to Chiang Mai and found an article by a journalist who mapped out all the places the infamous chef visited. Thankfully, Uber was a thing so we were already starting to feel more at home and called one to the first destination – the night market with the cowboy lady.
We were ravenous so the incredible smells of the rows and rows of street vendors didn’t exactly help. But they also didn’t exactly hurt. We found the cowboy lady stand where they stewed every part of the pig for days and made tons of concoctions out of them. I wasn’t raised orthodox Jewish, but something about it suddenly made me want to keep Kosher. We continued. Struck by the incredible colors, we saw different vegetables, meats and fruits. Finally, we settled on an older man’s stand where we got sautéed meat and veggies infused with tons of aromatic flavors and spices, the best tom kha coconut chili broth soup with various kinds of seafood and of course, a few (probably more than I would care to admit to my mom) local Chang beers to wash it all down. We were energized and wanted more.
We headed to another market where we were greeted by vendors selling artwork, clothes, tons and tons of colorful elephant figurines. We had to pace ourselves cause we knew there were many more markets to go. Continuing on Tony’s journey of Chiang Mai, we (okay, mostly me) wanted to check out one of the famed ladyboy shows. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for David), there was no show on Friday but we did meet a hilarious Scottish couple with their Thai friend Bibi who invited us to join them for a night out. WWTD (what would Tony do) – of course we said yes. They took us to a locals only bar where we met some cool neighbors, played pool and of course, enjoyed more Chang. Like any great night out, this one needed to end with some late night night food and thankfully there was no shortage in Thailand. We found a street vendor grilling dozens of different meats on sticks and pointed to a few that looked good. Grilled over a charcoal flame and infused with different soy and chili based sauces, this stuff hit the spot. We headed home to turn in for the night. Night one – success!
Discovering the local art scene (aka hipster paradise)
The next morning was the first time we could sleep in without the rush of a flight, tour or some other kind of planned activity so we took full advantage. Slept in until noon, we prepared a breakfast from all the food our hosts generously left for us in the fridge. Some toast, eggs, and fresh watermelon overlooking the serene pool and trees was just the start to the day we needed. We sluggishly got ready and headed out around 2p to start our day. Through his research, David found out that Chiang Mai was a hipster epicenter of Thailand and we were definitely intrigued. We called another Uber and followed several windy roads to the still developing district of WatUmong, home to a newly built “artist village” Baan Kang Wat. A series of shophouses, designed to highlight traditional and modern Thai elements have been built up around a small amphitheater to create an outdoor lifestyle mall that is pretty dang cute. We wandered around the shops, galleries and studios all focusing on local, handmade, sustainable products.
We were starving and stopped by the only restaurant in the area where we had no idea what was about to happen to our senses. This restaurant combines classic Italian pasta and recipes with the flavors, aromas and spices of Northern Thailand. The result was bold, creamy and not for the faint of heart SPICY goodness that you could only simmer down with more bites of deliciousness. We washed it all down with some fresh squeezed juice made from fruits and veggies found in the local community garden (take that, Atlantic Plumbing). 10/10.
After wandering around some more, taking pictures for couples and asking them to return the favor, we carried on to Nimman Road. Continuing our Asian hipster tour, we walked through coffee shops, art galleries and knick knack shops overhearing conversation about tech, art and of course, the Airbnbs where people were staying. Sunset was approaching so we swung into a boutique hotel with a picturesque rooftop bar that boasted an incredible view of the city and the mountains in the far distance to catch sundown. Another night, another night market amiright?
We grabbed another songtaew and headed to the Saturday night market. Thankfully the baht was still flowing so my soul was fulfilled with bartering on the street for the best prices (it was no grand bazaar, but I got a few deals). That’s when we met Chang. One of vendors was selling beautiful handmade wooden pieces and a tall life-size giraffe, taller than David, caught our eye. I began my typical round of haggling just to see the best price we could get and when I got it down to about $30 ~900 baht, I thought this might be something we actually commit to. We looked at each other, talked to the sweet saleswoman and said, “wrap it up”. We named the giraffe Chang after our favorite local beer (and half of the city’s name) and continued on our way. The market got us hungry so we stopped at a street vendor to get some food. I knew it was cliche but figured there was a reason Pad Thai is such a famous dish, so I opted for one of those while David got a veggie and pork sauté. After trying mine, he quickly realized he made the wrong choice. I reminded him that we paid ~30 baht (less than $1) and he should live dreams and get one as well. Two delicious pad thais for less than $2. Can't beat that.
Where to next? A Thai boxing match sounded like a good way to kill some time. This show was raw. We were talked into the “VIP seats” and got two seats right in the front row (the danger zone). The fighters were ruthless and nothing was off limits– biting, scratching, nonstop beating. We definitely got splashed with boxer sweat a few too many times but it all made for an unforgettable experience. Back to the Airbnb we went. Night two – success!
Hiking to the world’s most remote coffeeshop
Day 3 and we were ready to get active and see some of the famed natural scenery of Chiang Mai. After researching several day trips, we found one that looked just right. A car came to pick us up from our Airbnb at 7am and we were greeted by two young guys – a driver and a tour guide named Mi. We looked around the car to meet the other tourists but realized that noone else signed up. Group trip turned private… we’ll take it!
After a quick realization that we left our cash at home (well, I did) we stopped at an ATM and were off to stop #1. We arrived at Doi Inthanon National Park and mounted the windy roads to the majestic Wachirathan waterfall. The temperatures so high up was about 20 degrees cooler than the city and we had no complaints. Our guide, Mi, offered to take our photo with his professional camera but after seeing the quality of David’s iPhone camera, he quickly opted for the latter. I hadn’t had coffee yet and spotted a little coffee shop from the road so I asked our guide if we could make a quick pitstop. He said sure, but there was quite the coffee stop planned next in our excursion. I said I’d wait.
We hopped back into the car and continued on through the park going much much higher, told to prepare for a hike. We finally arrived to our destination where we were greeted by a local hill tribe guide. Without much information, we followed her and our guide into the wilderness. She led us through a trek made of bamboo woven ascents and descents, snakes, quick tastes of naturally growing cinnamon and lots of and lots of climbing. At one point during the hike, our guide asked if this was our first time hiking. We laughed out loud and told him that despite our poor performance, this was one of dozens of hikes we had done.
More waterfalls, bamboo bridges and bountiful fields of rice and strawberries took our breath away as we continued through the jungle to a destination unbeknownst to us. We stopped at a tree with red plants growing out of it when our guide asked if we knew that this was. It was pure coffee beans he explained to us. He told us that the beans only get their brownish color due to the roasting process. We said we could actually smell the coffee when he laughed and told us to continue following him.
We arrived to a small, open hut where we were greeted by a couple of older hill tribe locals. They asked if we wanted some coffee to which we nodded yes as if we were hypnotized. They showed us the rustic machine where they grind the coffee beans and invited us to give it a shot. After all of this “hard work” we were invited to sit and try some of the fruits of our labor. Let’s just say, this is what Starbucks dreams are made of. In fact, we found out that Starbucks in fact sources some of their coffee from this area of Thailand. Amazing. David, careful to keep some cash in his pocket for the promised “coffeeshop” and carrying it for the duration of the hike, felt a little foolish since it wasn’t that kind of coffee shop. But instead, we used the money to buy some coffee beans to take home!
Java-filled and energized, (and thankfully greeted by our driver at the “coffee shop” rather than hiking back to the start), we were on our way to the next stop. It was a foggy late morning when we arrived to see the King and Queen’s pagodas, perched near the summit of Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest mountain). Because of the clouded views, we continued on to lunch. Lunch was a homecooked meal in a Hmong village. We noticed that our new friends, Mi and the driver (whose name escapes me), sat at a separate table. I totally thought that after all of the conversation, jokes and comparisons of our cultures, we were friends so I asked them to join us at our table. They laughed and said that the cook was preparing them a special “spicy” meal and we were getting the “white version.” Ours was good, but I’m sure theirs was so much better.
Last stop: elephants! After another hour of driving, we were greeted by a new karen hill tribe local guide in a very muddy pickup truck. “Get in” said Mi. I was confused because we were a total of 4 people and there was only one free seat in the body of the car. David, Mi and I hopped into the trunk of the truck and off we went. We continued through the jungle hitting what seemed like every “road bump”, taking every twisty turn and definitely violating some type of safety and security guideline that didn’t seem to be posted anywhere. Woof– what a workout hanging on. But we finally arrived.
OMG a whole family of elephants just roaming around the open field was the first sight we saw. We got a change of clothes and a bag of bananas strapped to us, but other than that, no instructions. Our guide told us to go ahead and play with the elephants. Somehow, these beautiful majestic animals were a WHOLE lot bigger in person. As I approached one of them to pet her, her long powerful trunk came towards me in a pretty aggressive way. I stepped back and noticed she was going straight for my bag. The guide told us that while elephants have pretty poor vision, their sense of smell is impeccable and they LOVE bananas. Unwashed and unpeeled, the elephants didn’t care. They gobbled up the bananas and wanted more. David played with the dad while I hung with the mom and the (not so) itty bitty 1 month old baby. After the bananas ran out, the elephants were tired and uninterested in their new visitors so they tribespeople invited us to go for a swim and bathe the animals. Experience of a lifetime. They were so sweet and playful, showering us with their trunks and rolling around. It was clear that the elephants were happy in their life at the sanctuary. We said our goodbyes and headed back for the day.
The time we almost got kidnapped...
After a quick decompression and relaxation back at the Airbnb, we headed out to grab some dinner and check out the famous Sunday night market. Only we realize that we’re fresh out of cash. We stop at a hotel to ask if they have a money exchange but the lady at the front desk didn’t speak any english. Thankfully, a nice gentleman comes up and says he knows of a money exchange still open. While Asya uses the bathroom, David strikes up a conversation with the guy. Asya comes back to David saying, “He’s a taxi driver heading back home and can give us a ride to the exchange. It’s on his way home and only about 7 minutes away.” Without too much thought, Asya agrees and gets into the unmarked car (not an official taxi) and notices another man get into an SUV right behind us. Now, I know how this sounds from the outside but the man really was very nice when we spoke with him.
We are off and notice that the car behind us is following our every move. The driver gets on the phone and starts a conversation in Thai. Asya is getting really nervous at this point and tries to take note of their surroundings and where this driver is taking them. He tells us there’s too much traffic on the main road and opts to take some back roads instead. Great. Asya almost in a full heart attack, while David seems calm, cool and collected (as always). It’s been a little over 10 minutes and Asya is planning her escape from the vehicle. Just as she’s about to jump out of the moving vehicle (okay, not really) we pull up to … a money exchange. The man very kindly drops us off and wishes us luck. Feeling relieved, grounded and a little guilty for the judgement, we offer to pay him but he won’t take our money. Alas. Day 3 is another one for the books.
Last day in paradise
On our last day, we knew we couldn’t top the adventures of the previous day, so we decided to do a cooking class – a good way to remember the exquisite cuisine we’d been enjoying the last few days. After tons of research, we settled on Tom Yum Cooking School, a local cooking school run by Oun and his wife, both Thai chefs who met living and working in South Korea.
The plan was to meet Oun at a local market to pick out ingredients for our 6 (!!!) course meal. Having a little trouble finding out guide, we emailed him and said to look for the “fat guy with a basket”. I felt really guilty at how quickly I found him after that accurate description. Oun was so welcoming, funny and so knowledgeable about all of the spices, chiles, and meats we saw at the market. As our meals we chose: tom yum soup, spring rolls, papaya salad, pad see ew, kao soi and panang curry. Woof, here we go.
We learned that Thai food is prepared extremely quickly and at a very high heat. Oun said that’s probably why our Thai food comes out so quickly at restaurants back home (lol Oun, clearly you haven’t been to Royal Thai in DC). His kitchen was actually located outdoors due to the overpowering smoke.
We learned how to properly use a 4” butcher’s knife and how to create our own curry paste using a pestle and mortar. Course after course, meal after meal, we were overwhelmed by the flavors, aromas and the heat. Our eyes, noses and stomachs couldn’t get enough. We begged Oun to join us but he wouldn’t give in. Instead, he brought out two beers for us to wash it all down with.
After our 3 hour class and meal was over, Oun sent us back with a recipe book of everything we learned as well as a tank top with his school’s motto “more spicy, more sexy.” We spent the rest of the day strolling through a locals only market (wish we would have found out about it sooner), stopping for butcher knives, coffee, some small souvenirs but absolutely no more food.
As quickly as it came, it ended just as fast. We packed up, checked out of our listing for the last time and headed back to the airport to embark on our 28 hour journey back home. We’ll be back for more, Chiang Mai.