chiang mai

First There Was Plan A...

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Today was my last day in Chiang Mai. I spent the morning at the oldest market in town, the Warrot market, getting lost and wandering the stalls. I took a break in the shade - it was over 100 degrees in town - at a beautiful old temple and then it was time to head out of the city to the town of Chiang Dao near the largest mountain in Thailand, appropriately named, Chiang Dao Mountain.

I consulted my guidebook and decided a bus would get me where I was going. The guidebook also said, the “town” wasn’t much more than an intersection of two roads, with dusty buildings on either side, but I could get a ride/taxi from the bus stop to where I was staying, 9-10 miles up to the base of the mountain. So there was Plan A.

I took a took a tuktuk (three-wheeled moped taxi) to the bus station outside the north city gate and boarded the bus, which given the fact that I was the only non-Thai, seems to be a rarity for foreigners. I had about 6 inches on the edge of a bench seat with two other people, my backpack between my legs as we drove - in a very hot bus - the hour and half up the winding roads to Chiang Dao. I got out at my stop and the guidebook was correct, not much there. Also not there, any type of taxi or other vehicle for hire. So much for Plan A.

I looked around and saw across the street a (relatively) busy open air restaurant that advertised coffee. Hoping someone would speak English, I took a chance and went inside. No English speakers. I tried to sign that I was looking for a ride, but no luck. As long as I was there, I ordered an iced coffee, and tried to figure out Plan B.

I was looking around to see if I could see a pay phone and maybe call the place I was staying, when a Thai woman came in with a backpack. She smiled and I immediately asked, “English?” She responded “a little.” A little was all I needed. I explained I wanted a ride up the mountain, but didn’t have a phone to call anyone. She stood up, picked up my backpack and said, “ok, for motorbike.” I wasn’t sure what this meant, but she got on her phone, dialed a magic number, and turned and said, “motor bike here in 10 minutes, 60 bhat ($2)”. We waited together, drinking coffee. She had been in the area for one week and was heading back to Bangkok on a bus. When the motorbike hadn’t arrived, she called again and I think, told them in no uncertain terms I was still waiting for a ride. Eventually, the motorbike arrived.

I put on my backpack, the driver took my smaller bag in his lap and I climbed on the back. The next thing I knew we were on our way up the mountain. Every once in while he would point at something he thought I should see as we wove our way up the narrow road. I have to say Plan B was a lot more interesting than Plan A.

We arrived at my hotel - that may not be the right word for the series of bamboo huts that face the mountain - but so far it was definitely worth the ride.

The Language of Food

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I lurched away from the table after a few hours feeling like Elvis in Vegas - fat, drugged, and completely out of it. ― Anthony Bourdain, Chef

Chiang Mai is nothing if not the food capital of Thailand, especially street food - from every type of meat or sausage on a stick, to noodles to something that resembles a fried doughnut with black sesame seeds. Everywhere you look, there is someone cooking something. By all accounts, everyone here should weigh 600lbs. They are eating or taking away noodles and soup in plastic bags to eat later, popping dumplings like candy and frying up everything in sight. And I am right there with them, at least that is what it felt like today.

I took a full day cooking class today, with a well-known Thai chef. We got an introduction to Thai ingredients, watched the chef prepare seven different dishes and then we replicated (as best we could) our versions of them. Of course, we had to sample and eat our way through the day too.

I thought I knew something about Thai food, but the complexity of the food and the list of ingredients was amazing. They have 10, count ‘em 10, different soy sauces, 4 types of basil, I don’t know how many types of chilies and list goes on. I took notes like I was in school again and left with a recipe book, so we’ll see what I can do when I get home.

When I got back to my hotel, I fell into a deep food coma. When I came to, I thought I only have a two more nights here and there were places I still wanted to try, so I put on my walking shoes (no tuktuks or taxi tonight) and headed out of town, through the old city gate (1400 years old to be exact) and across the river to a restaurant that I had heard about. It is situated overlooking the Ping river. There was a guy playing crazy good jazz guitar (who knew?) and a mix of locals and expats all trying to get in. There was a wait for a table so I sat at the bar. An Australian, now living in Thailand, and his Thai wife sat down next to me. We started talking and when their table came up they asked me to join them. Initially I refused, because I didn’t want to intrude, but eventually I agreed.

We sat down and the woman started reading the menu and asking the waitress, in Thai of course, which dishes were local and where the ingredients came from. I asked her to order for me too. It was one of the best meals I have had - green mango salad, fresh fish with chili and vegetables, rice…

We talked, ate and drank. I forgot all about trying to figure out how they made the food or what was in my food, and just enjoyed it. So while, I’m glad for the opportunity to have learned what I learned today, I’m more grateful for good company and the prospect of sharing a meal with friends when I get home.

The Art of Conversation

To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. – Freya Stark

Last night I left Bangkok on an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Honestly, I was looking forward to leaving the insanity of Bangkok behind - the traffic, smog, street vendors, the noise…it was a lot for my jet lagged brain to absorb, not to mention my small town sensibilities.

The central train station in Bangkok is a rather dismal place - overrun with feral cats, stray dogs, some unpleasant bathrooms and the requisite homeless outside. Needless to say, I wasn’t holding out much hope for the actual train.

I was booked in second class cabin with four sleeping berths. Somewhat to my surprise, it was clean, the porter was making up the beds and there were no animals in sight. I looked around and realized that trains seem to be the preferred mode of transportation for the 20-something backpacker set and native Thai. My cabin mates were no different, a french couple, barely 20, on a three month trip through Southeast Asia and Australia.

As they climbed into their upper bunks, talking together, it made me think about how different it is to travel alone. When you travel with someone or a group, the experience binds you together, but when you travel alone, it is a little like “when a tree falls in the woods…” You are the keeper of that experience and the only person it can or might change is you.

By nature, I’m a talker and tend to process what is happening by talking about it (and sometimes to) the people I am with. I think that is why I started writing - to have some place to put my thoughts, even when I didn’t have someone to say them out loud to.

When I woke up on the train and pulled back the curtain in my bunk, the landscape had completely changed. I was in rural Thailand - cows, rice fields, dirt roads, mountains…I looked across from me and somewhere in the middle of the night, a middle aged Thai woman had gotten on board and was now in the bunk across from me. She gave me a huge smile. She looked out the window with the same awe on her face I’m sure I had on mine. When our breakfast arrived, she cleared the small table and pointed at me to put my plate on the table with hers. We sat across from each other, alternating nodding at one another and staring out the window. A while later we arrived in Chiang Mai, as she left the cabin, she turned, put her hands together and bowed. I did the same.

I know we never said a word, but I think it was one of the nicest breakfast conversations I have ever had.