An unexpected visit to Chiang Mai

Trip Start Oct 15, 2010
Trip End Jan 11, 2011

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Monday, November 29, 2010

We had booked tickets for the sleeper carriage to Chiang Mai; I had the upstairs bed and Nathan had the downstairs. It was terribly hot, as always in Bangkok, I was feeling dizzy and nauseous and the hospital green decor didn't help. Once the train got moving it was a lot cooler though and I fell asleep quickly. I woke up a few times in the night and the rocking of the train was quite soothing. Nathan didn't sleep as well but enjoyed the trip as a whole, having never taken a long distance train before. We were served breakfast in the morning and arrived in Chiang Mai in the early afternoon.
We checked into a hotel that I had seen recommended online. After weeks of staying in guesthouses it felt a bit impersonal, but on the other hand the room was three times the size of what we were used to, we had a table, a couch, a fridge, a super king bed, aircon, a TV and of course a bathroom (not unusual even in guesthouses). For our first evening in Chiang Mai Nathan went out and bought some beers and a takeaway pizza, which was better than most of the pizzas we get at home, so we could have dinner in and watch bad TV for the first time in weeks - what a luxury!
The following day we hired bicycles and made our way around various temples. Riding a bike after many years was an experience to say the least. Nathan fully enjoyed it (especially because a group of schoolgirls took a fancy to him, worked up the courage to say hello and ran away giggling) but I found it quite terrifying, not only because I was wobbly and couldn't remember how to get started or what to do when I stopped, but also because of the traffic. This is relatively subdued in Chiang Mai, but even so, I don't enjoy being on the road at home either. As the day wore on I gained a little confidence although I still dismounted and took any right hand turns as a pedestrian.
Wat Chedi Luang, which we could actually see from our hotel room, was a particularly interesting shape. It housed the Emerald Buddha (which I wrote about in one of the first Bangkok blogs) until the temple was destroyed during 1500s, either by an earthquake or by canon fire (stories vary). It was reconstructed in the 1990s with funding from UNESCO and Japan. Because no one knows what the original roof looked like the top has not been not rebuilt. 
Another temple consisted of a stunning building with ornate gold trimming. There were many statues and figurines in the gardens surrounding it including one of Donald Duck - tacky to say the least, but then the Thai love that.
While we were cycling down a quiet side street that went around the back of a temple Nathan stopped to take a photo. As he was getting a camera out a monk approached him. They started chatting in the usual manner "Where are you from?" etc. We learned that the monk had been traveling himself, to Sri Lanka and India, and was thinking about moving to Sri Lanka. During our conversation he rated countries on how Buddhist they are "Laos is a good Buddhist country." "Nepal is a good Buddhist country? Many Hindus in Nepal?" He assessed the people on the fairness of their skin. For example, I said that I had worked with many Sri Lankans and that they were very nice. He replied "In Sri Lanka have very dark skin. Not so beautiful" In Asia it is of course desirable to have really light skin (as an aside, I bought some deodorant the other day which is the same brand as I use in New Zealand but here it comes 'with whitening'. So you can expect me to come home with a nice tan and shiny white armpits). The monk also asked us lots of questions about religion in New Zealand, for example "What is the difference between Catholic and Protestant?" which I have to say we did a very poor job answering.
According to a guidebook, one of the most popular sights of Chiang Mai is the night market, so we were keen to check it out on our second night in the town. We were a bit disappointed to find it was entirely tourist orientated with stall after stall of similar souvenirs that didn't interest us at all. It was dinnertime so we headed for food street. I had imagined something along the lines of the lantern festival in Auckland: a busy street lined with food carts. Instead we found it was just a lot of indistinguishable permanent restaurants. We picked a place at random and I will let Nathan take over the description of our dinner:
The first course arrived. Fresh leafy greens and garlic lightly sauteed in oyster sauce. I imagine the chefs method was something like this:
1. Peel and finely slice 5 cloves of garlic
2. Roughly chop 1 cup of leafy greens
3. Heat oil in pan over high heat
4. Add garlic & stir fry for 1 minute
5. Add greens and stir in 1/4 cup of oyster sauce
6. Find the largest measuring device you have handy, it really doesn't matter what size it is, but the bigger the better. Scoop out 1 level measure of MSG and carefully dump into the pan. (hey you can never have too much of a good thing right!)
7. Stir
8. Taste. If your tongue doesn't immediately shrivel up from an overwhelming saltiness then repeat steps 6 through 8.
9. Serve immediately
The taste was as you would imagine, nothing but MSG. The meal hadn't gotten off to a great start and by this point I had an inkling that it may not get much better. What I hadn't realised was that it had actually peaked and what was about to be served went far beyond merely unappetizing. It got plain scary.
Mains: Thai Fish Cakes, Roast Duck with Rice
The Thai Fish Cakes promised to really be something special. We were in a restaurant which specialised in fresh seafood, having it proudly displayed in front of the kitchen sitting in large trays of crushed ice. The classic Thai flavour base adds itself so well to this kind of food. My mouth was watering at the thought of some flaked fish mixed with diced red chilies, fresh coriander and lime juice formed into cakes and pan fried. The plate arrived. Confusion set in fast. We looked upon 5 or 6 large, flat, grey and distinctly soggy looking masses. I poked at one suspiciously with my chop stick and it deflected my advance. I tried again with greater intent this time but again my chopstick was denied entry. Deciding I wasn't going to let this thing beat me I picked it up, dunked it in the chili sauce and took a bite. The experience can be summed up in three words. Rubbery, chewy, and crunchy. Judging by how it looked on the inside I could understand the first two. It was highly processed with the visual consistency of a soya meat-substitute burger patty. What I don't understand is how something so processed could possibly also be full of bones and what I imagine were scales which were responsible for the crunch. The flavour of the cake itself was uneventful. The only real flavour came from the dipping sauce which was a mixture of red chili, courgette, fish sauce, lime juice and garlic and was actually quite good. Despite the sauce I couldn't even force down one of these. 

The roast duck with rice would surely be better. The picture on the menu showed a sliced duck breast very much like Peking duck, dark  brown, crispy and delicious. I had seen one hanging from a street-front restaurant earlier in the day and it looked amazing. The duck breast on our plate unfortunately didn't quite match up. The skin was a light brown colour, almost yellow, it hung loosely off the meat and threatened to puddle on the plate next to it. The meat itself was the same questionable grey colour of the fish cakes. I didn't jump in so fast to this dish thinking I'd let Yvonne test the waters this time. Her face said it all. The duck was cold, bland and fatty. The skin was soggy and chewy. She managed to gag down a few bites before we decided it really wasn't worth the risk. I avoided this one altogether.

This was the worst meal we've had on our trip so far. It wasn't just bad, it was terrible. The fish cakes were tough, chewy, and full of bones. The duck was cold, soggy, and bland. You would get better food at any food court kitchen in New Zealand. When we were finished, which didn't take long, most of the food was still on the plates. It is a bit out of character for me but I told the waitress and the manager what I thought of the food and was largely ignored. We ended up with a 19 Baht (90c) discount and were sent on our way. It was an incredibly disappointing meal. We were still hungry when we left but I was not ready to put my life in the hands of another restaurant on "Food Street" again so we ended up stopping in at Burger King on the way back to our accommodation. Sometimes there is nothing better than the dependable and digestible mediocrity of an international fast-food chain. It was delicious.
Nothing upsets Nathan more than bad food.
We were picked up from our hotel at 9.30 the following morning. We were hoping to rectify our dinner experience and spend the day stuffing our faces in a town that is known as a bit of a food Mecca in Thailand. We were dropped off at Smart Cook Thai Cookery School where we met the teacher, May, and the rest of the class. The venue was beautiful and had a dining hall with dark wood floors and low tables and an outdoors kitchen. We were asked to choose which dishes we wanted to make for our six courses and Nathan and I made sure to choose different ones.

May then took us to the market. She gave us a tour of some of the stalls and showed us lots of ingredients that were new to us and told us how they are used. Having picked up a few bits of pieces each we headed back and started cooking. It was great to be back in a kitchen. May turned out to be a fun, bubbly woman with a great sense of humour. The funniest was when she would tell someone off for doing something wrong "Nooo, why do you do that? Who told you it's ok to put the chicken in now?" The rest of the class was great too. There were three girls from South Africa who were absolutely hilarious. One of them, Melanie, reminded us so much of our friend and ex-flatmate, Esther. She was outgoing, extremely funny and motherly at the same time. Food-wise the highlights included:

  • Nathan's pad thai (I swear this was the best version of the dish we've eaten this whole trip, and that's saying a lot!)
  • our deep fried and fresh spring rolls
  • my chicken in coconut milk soup
  • Melanie's deep fried banana spring rolls with condensed milk (mmmmm....)  

 ...and much much more. All up we had a fantastic time, we learned a lot, got to hang out with great people and by the end of the day we were all so full we could barely move. The day was a highlight of the trip so far and we decided to do another class in both Vietnam and Laos.

On our final day in Chiang Mai we went to the markets in the Chinese quarter. They really made up for our night market disappointment. There was interesting food produce, electronics, cheap clothing (I bought a Tshirt for about NZ$2.50) and everything else the locals need for their daily lives. At last it felt like we had found a Chiang Mai not entirely centered around the tourist industry.
At 3pm it was time to board our train for the 15 hour journey back to Bangkok. We both enjoyed the trip and will try to travel by train as much as we can during the rest of our time in Asia. Sadly, although we did have some wonderful experiences, neither of us loved Chiang Mai as much as other people seem to. We found it somehow lacked a real center and it felt a bit like it could be a city anywhere in Asia. Perhaps we are starting to get a bit travel-weary in the sense that not everything seems as amazing as it would if we had come straight here from New Zealand. It also explains our delight at the mundane pleasure of TV and the comfort we felt from the cold embrace of an international food chain. On the other hand, we are still absolutely loving this lifestyle and the many interesting and new experiences and sights and have no desire to return to home as yet.
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