Chiang Mai

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Night market, Chiang Mai Thai cookery school

Flag of Thailand  ,
Monday, December 3, 2012

Getting to Chiang Mai and northern Thailand has many options including direct flights, a tedious bus trip or the overnight train trip.
I caught the overnight train from Hulaphong station in Bangkok in the early evening and booked a 2 bed compartment. After boarding the slow moving train made it's way through the back streets of Bangkok - giving you a passing glimpse into the lives of the people living along the line - before heading north into the night. A comfortable night journey came to a slow awakening at sunrise an hour or so away from Chiang Mai. 

As the train arrives in the north the countryside is just waking up with farmers in their fields, water buffalo wallowing in the mud and a light mist hanging over the dawn landscape - it reminds me of the scene from a movie. The feel is immediately different with mountains, bamboo forests, paddy fields and it is cooler. I have arranged to be collected from the station by the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School where I had booked a course but there are taxi's available to take you to town.

My first impression of Chiang Mai is it feels relaxed after the mayhem of Bangkok - the surrounding mountains and forests add to this feeling of calmness. The traffic is a breeze as we make our way to the old city across the moat. Plus Chiang Mai is cooler than Bangkok but being in the mountains - pollution can be an issue. This is the old northern capital of Thailand steeped in history and tradition. The food is also slightly different with a number of specialist foods and dishes - try the local barbecued sausage and a few northern Thai curries.   

The cookery school adventure may have been one of those life defining moments we have occasionally as we travel the world - this is where I realised how important food and cookery were to me. The course is well run and last most of the day from around nine in the morning and finishing late in the afternoon. Most schools will arrange to collect you at your hotel after breakfast and take you back again in the afternoon. Our course has cooks from Canada, Europe and the Caribbean.

We start the day with a visit to the fresh market situated in the walls of the old city to buy ingredients including limes, coconut milk and various curry pastes for the days cooking before heading out to the school. The school is situated a little way out of town in an estate. It is well run by friendly staff including the owner Sompon who first explain the dish and prepare it in front of the class before you replicate it at your cooking station. The school offers a half a dozen courses and each course covers 6 to 8 dishes - which once produced you get to eat - including a cookery book. Other odds and ends on offer are aprons, woks and various utensils. This is a day well spent and highly recommended. 

There are a choice of some excellent cookery schools in Thailand - so do your research before committing. Most cookery schools offer private Master classes for more experienced and or professional cooks which are often run in the evenings. You will leave with a new found skill plus all the memories.

I am staying at the Chiang Mai Plaza which is well positioned with easy access to the market and the river. The hotel is a middle of the road 3 star which is comfortable with a sparkling pool and impressive spacious lobby. Breakfast is a lavish affair catering for western and asian tastes and is included in the room rate. The breakfast has the option of seating inside or on the outdoor patio with a wide selection of foods and fresh fruits offered on a self service basis.

Like all Thai towns and cities the night market is a focal point for both tourists and locals and Chiang Mai is no different. The night market was a 5 minute walk from my hotel and an excellent place to shop for bargains, have a foot massage and eat a wonderful outdoor meal from one of the many bustling eateries while sipping a cold beer. Buying the usual souvenirs is best left to Chiang Mai - the prices are better the sales pitches less strong and the atmosphere far more relaxed than in Bangkok. The market itself has an almost festive atmosphere with loads to see - lots of places to eat at the outdoor food area - and nicely laid out. It is certainly where both locals and Farang hang out in the evenings.

In the area and surrounds of Chiang Mai there are plenty of things to do. A day trip to the hill tribes or a few days hike in the mountains is easily arranged through one of many tourist agencies in town. There is an annual flower show which is spectacular but accommodation can be a problem while it is on. The water festival "Sonkrang" is serious fun and happens throughout Thailand in April each year - it will take you back to your childhood with water fights and laughter.  

Another must do is an Elephant camp visit in the nearby hills and forests. Taking a short trek on an elephant in the forests and across some rivers is a fun experience - if not a little uncomfortable. Most of these tours will include an Ox cart ride and a lazy bamboo raft trip down river. With lunch and an elephant show thrown in it is a good days outing with plenty of photo ops. Although very touristy this is a good day with some unique experiences and good memories.

I decide to do a second Thai massage - having done my first in Bangkok. The Thai massage is not a massage in the western sense of a massage. There are no essential oils, hot towels and relaxing music. These massages involve a fair amount of discomfort, contortion and for sure pain and can take an hour. All in the name of better health. By far my favorite massages are the foot massages available in most areas even in the night markets. They become somewhat addictive and I have them when ever I can - from north to south. Why we don't have them in the west I don't know.  

From Chiang Mai most travelers head north towards Chiang Rai or to the treks arranged in the northern mountains. My plan is to go north to Chiang Rai and then make my way to the mighty Mekong - it has been on my bucket list for a while. 

I get a great tip from a local to go south to the small town of Lampung and then take a long tail boat all the way to Chiang Rai - a 4 hour trip. So I hire a driver to take me from Chiang Mai to the boat dock at Lampung and make sure I am on the right boat to Chiang Rai. This unplanned excursion turns into a highlight of my S.E. Asian journey, unexpected, unplanned and different. I had the hotel pack me a light lunch for the trip, which includes some cold chicken,an apple and a few sandwiches. I buy a few bottles of water at the dock and load my bag aboard and I am ready to go.

The boat trip becomes an eye opener - giving you an unusual insight  into rural river life in Northern Thailand - from fishermen optimistically throwing their nets into the murky water, to naked laughing children cavorting in the shallows. From the verdant green paddy fields and the majestic old forests each bend in the river is anew surprise. The boat stops a few times during our trip - once at an Elephant camp cut out of the surrounding forest and situated along the river bank and at a small tribal village where women go about their chores while children play in the dust. The chickens scratching in the dirt and the few piglets roaming around complete the idyllic scene. I buy a few handicraft items made by the tribe women in payment for the pics I am allowed to take. 

Some four hours after leaving Lamphung the boatman drops me at the jetty next to the pool of the Rim Kok Resort hotel - this is a good way to arrive at a hotel. That was 4 hours of memories and in many ways I am sad it has come to an end. 

My next stop is  the northern town of Chiang Rai and the mighty Mekong - one of the worlds great rivers which makes it;s way through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.  

By this stage of the trip I am starting to feel like a seasoned South East Asian traveler, having acclimatized to the heat, made peace with and enjoying really hot spicy food.I have also managed to picked up a little Thai which helps break the ice with the locals. 

Chiang Mai Tip: 
  • Take the train from Bangkok
  • Do a cookery course at one of the many schools here - excellent
  • Arrange a day at an Elephant camp with a trek by elephant
  • Experience a Thai massage  
  • Going north try the boat trip from Lamphung

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