The city of Chiang Mai is an old one, and is one of the many previous capitals of Thailand. Now it holds the title of the capital of the north, reminds me a bit of Manchester. It has its own character, tastes and agenda that combine elements from all over the norther provinces. Using it as a base for the north, we spent around ten days there.The history is disguised by the modern city, but is seen mostly in the town walls, which mark out a square around the Old Town. Chang Phuak gate, as its now called, also known as the North gate, was built in 1296. A place of ceremony, the statue of a white elephant used to stand in front of it, Kings walked through the gate on their way to their coronation, and city events were celebrated here. Stop for a look as you zip along on your scooter, or visit the markets there, with some really cheap and unbelievably tasty food.
It wouldn’t be Asia without a market, and Chiang Mai does good markets. There are three main markets: the Saturday market, the Sunday market and the night market. The night market lies east of the old town walls, towards the river. Massive and immersive, the night market is a good way to spend the evening, stuffing your face with miscellaneous food on sticks and sipping on £1 beer..The first time we went to the night market, it took a while. We walked for about 20minutes before getting that embarrassing feeling that we weren’t lost, it just wasn’t there. Feeling like a sausage dog trying to climb a staircase, we thought it been changed because of some secret Thai law that meant no night market could open on a Saturday, it wouldn’t be the first time things has inexplicably changed. Searching for another source of beer, and something to fill our tums, we walked back into town where we found the market’s hiding place; the Saturday old town market. The Saturday and Sunday markets are a spaghetti bowl of streets and stalls, that cover the centre of the Old Town, closing down everything in the vicinity -including our scooter access to anywhere. They sell food and crafts, all the elephant trousers you could ever need and some unique gifts for home. I was fascinated by some metal pictures, which are hammered and sculpted in a traditional Thai art style. I’ve seen a few in thin leather or Cattle hide too. Street performers (and children wanting pocket money) practice their art in the crowd, making the soundtrack to the markets. It’s hard to miss, but you wouldn’t want to.
The other two markets I’d recommend and the ones at South gate and North gate. Both are laden with sit down food stalls. As I mentioned before, food is fast and cheap. We sought out ‘Phai Thai man’ a couple of times and he did not dissapoint. Get some fresh juice while you’re there, to cool the chilli fire explosion in your mouth.
Like suit shops in Bangkok, coffee shops in Chiang Mai are everywhere. They’re brilliant for a little stop off and come in all price ranges. My favourites were Dolcetto and Into The Woods. Get a cheeky cake as well, although I’m sure you don’t need my encouragement. Check out these articles on it, from aminearlythereyet and bontraveller.
Another of the big ticks on our to do list was cookery, and more specifically a Thai cooking class. We found one that was perfect, a little pricer than others, but well worth it. Our group comprised of a young couple from England, a bit older than us, a honeymoon couple from the states of which one couldn’t cook and the other didn’t do spice but both were lovely company, a large Malaysian woman called Whinnie and her energetic husband, and finally two rather posh middle aged English people who were doing legal work in various parts on the world. Add James and I and that was the troupe.
Out in the countryside, in a huddle of kitchens with allotment gardens, we were taught about the way ingredients grow and what flavours they produced. Thai cooking is a combination of signature ingredients, the flavour tweaked by the quantities of what you use, what is put in and what is left out. The main players are coconut milk, kaffir lime, fish sauce, coconut sugar, vegetables (aubergine, morning glory, pepper…), peanuts/cashew nuts, ginger, lemongrass and of course chillies. We got a tray each with them on, squeezing and smelling. The kaffir limes were really bobbly and everyone found them insanely difficult to zest, bar Whinnie who sliced with skill.
Thai Green curry is a popular favourite at home, with red or yellow variations. Flavours here are the thick base of lemongrass, green chilli, coconut milk, Thai aubergine and some ‘delicate[s]’ leaves. It was so simple and I felt like a proper chef. With all the heat, it smelt immense.
My favourite Thai food is Tom Yum soup. I’d never heard of it before coming here but it surpasses all the Thai green curries and all the fried rice, tasting like nothing I’ve ever tasted. It’s red, slightly creamy but sharp, clean and filling. Chunks of veg and whatever meat you order are put in it, along with leaves, ginger and lemongrass which I advise you not to munch on. Go spicer than you normally would too, the flavour sings with the chilli, in a tingling serenade of yumminess.
Being the wet season, we were caught in the usual rain storm. We huddled around the cooking pots and looked worriedly at each other. The guide/chef seemed not to be bothered so we carried on, happy with our mango rice combo. Then the rain got darker and thicker. Not looking good, but we kept going. Thunder now, la de da, chop the mango. Then there was lightening and I absolutely sh*t myself. It hit the roof and we all went quiet. This was no nigellas kitchen. Luckily, the storm was late in the day, sadly, it was nearly the end of our food discovery. Being proud that I’d made it, recently of food waste, and stubborn, I ate every bit of my mango sticky rice pudding. By the end, I was Christmas dinner full, and dragged my comatose body back to the van for our ride home.
Thai cooking classes are available all over the county but I advise doing it in the north where the locals really let loose in the kitchen. There are loads on offer that will cater to your needs, most with five or six dishes in a days class -trust me, this is plenty. The staple set up is a soup, a paste, a curry, a stir fry, a side dish and a pudding. Bonus, try to get one with a free recipe book to take home, my memory at least won’t retain it all and it’s just useful for reference. The classes let you get stuck in to something rather than looking at it through your lens, disconnected and mystifying. Bonus, you can actually cook some decent food to show everyone when you get home.
In Thailand there are many kinds of massage. We chose a foot massage, done in the daytime, in a very PG way. We saw loads of spa centres and fancy massageparlours in Chiang Mai, but between every tour shop and cafe is a skilled masseuse offing a good price. The going rate is 200 baht per hour for a foot massage, getting imcreasingly expensive as is the complexity grows. Feeling tentative bout what we were about to have done to us, we stuck with feet. We chose to go to the female ex-inmates place, with the idea that we could enjoy ourselves and help them learn a new trade or succeed in their career. Oh wow, it was good. They took us through a sliding door, up some stairs and into a small room. People were silent, and there was some calming music in the background. James was a couple of chairs away from me, still looking terrified. She poked my toes sometimes which bloody hurt, other times it was a thorough rub, and other times it was I don’t know what but it tickled. After an hour of blissful dosing and side glances at James, we came out with a few brew -always a winner- and our feet feeling like marshmallows. They had been pummelled into clouds of softness, like an overripe peach.
Chiang Mai was my new home away from home. Things felt comfortable and familiar, we’d made friends and survived the roads. For four days, we left the cosy coffee shops and went north to Chiang Rai, leaving the city behind, for now.