From Brownstone apartments to gilded golden temples, hill-tribe villages, Muay Thai and birthdays. Through Pub Quizzes, halloween fancy dress pub crawls to Shamanic drum journeys, Thanksgiving dinners and Lantern Festivals, my recent time in Chiang Mai has been nothing short of fascinating and life affirming.
Sophie, her Dad, Gray and I left the island together knowing it would be a long trip but would also be a fun way to see the country. The journey from Koh Phangan involved 9 forms of transport. We started with a taxi from our beach bungalow to the Koh Phangan International harbour, the ferry to Donsak Pier in Surat Thani and the bus to the airport. We then took a flight to Bangkok and were shepherded from the plane to the terminal by airport bus. The Airport-city Rail link took us into the centre of Bangkok and we negotiated the MRT to Hua Lamphong station where we would get the overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. On arrival in Chiang Mai we took a Song Thaew or red pick up truck to the area we were staying. It went pretty smoothly considering the range in transport modes and the number of connections we had to make. I passed out almost immediately on boarding the train since it was so hot, we’d had a beer in the station and had been travelling all day.
We checked into La Mer, where I had stayed before in the funky little Moon Muang Soi 6-7 area of Chiang Mai’s Old city and it was a joy to have soft, comfy beds, air conditioning and hot showers.
Gray’s mate Warren has lived in Chiang Mai for many a year and came to meet us for breakfast the following day at the Blue Diamond where he was surprised by the extras he got in his Khao Tom. This breakfast soup normally comes pretty plain but he had vegetables and seemed perplexed. The rest of us had pretty satisfying Western breakfasts in the green garden setting replete with Koi Carp swimming underneath the water features.
We returned to the restaurant many times during our stay just around the corner even though to be honest, I find the food a bit average. It was convenient though, and I would go to use the wi-fi and know that I could choose from a wide selection of dishes. I did like their Mango, Banana and Bee Pollen shake and they have a wide selection of buns, cookies and cakes which always looked appetising although I have heard a couple of stories about mouldy centres…
We spent the first night in Chiang Mai at the Sunday Night Market which is simply enormous although we barely scratched the surface. Shopping wasn’t high on our agenda so we grazed the street food stands buying gyoza, meat on sticks, crispy pork, noodles, fruit shakes and numerous other delights. Tiny quail’s eggs, deep fried fish roe, omlettes cooked over a grill in a banana-leaf boat, numerous exotic salads… there really was too much for us to eat in one go. But we attempted it. After this culinary meltdown we were kind of tired and walking amongst hundreds of shoppers wasn’t so appealing, despite the array of fabulous handicrafts, clothes and art work that are available every week here. Instead we found ourselves a seat by the side of the road and had a foot massage to rejuvinate. Gray was having an in-depth if slightly confused conversation with his masseuse while Sophie and I decided that most of the Buddha images on display at the stall opposite were lacking in artistic merit.
On the way home we swung past the Thae Pae Gate and noticed that there was football on the television at the Brix Bar. Gray had been having withdrawal symptoms and I must admit it was far too long since I’d really taken an interest. The place was like any typical hotel bar, comfortable but a bit bland, that is until the house band started playing rock’n’roll classics outside. When we walked past they gave us cheeky grins and were delighted that we were singing along with the Beatles and bopping away to Elvis. The infectious band drew us back several times while in Chiang Mai, they were always happy to see us and give us a smile or a shout out and the cakes and drinks at Brix were pretty decent too.
Warren plays the guitar and sings blues numbers so we went along with him to the Boy Blues Bar in Anusan Market near the Night Bazaar where the local band jammed with Westerners and played a selection of blues classics. We weren’t really in full power mode after our epic journey but enjoyed the show and then were impressed when Warren got up to serenade us with a couple of old numbers. It was an interesting spot on the roof and with many ex-pat farang in residence and obviously enjoying each other’s musicianship. There is some great live music in Chiang Mai for pretty much whichever genre you might prefer.
For Sophie’s Birthday I had arranged for her and Gray to take a private cooking class with Duang where they learnt how to make the Papaya salad (Som Tum), Mango Cake, Tom Yum and Tom Kha and deep fried, breaded mushrooms with Seaweed. They also made a special dessert of Mango cake with almonds and cream that was delicious and lasted us a few days..! I enjoyed the resulting feast and was very impressed with their work.
We met Warren and Nat for dinner at the local Japanese restaurant where Sophie ordered for us all and we enjoyed a wide selection of Tempura, sushi, wine and fun. Our drunken night continued at the Griffin, the local hole in the wall reggae bar where the mojitos and Caiprinihas are 50Baht (about £1) and Sky and his team make you feel welcome and at home. We have spent a few nights in there getting drunk until the early hours when the guitars come out and Somewhere over the Rainbow and sing-along classics get busted out. We set the world to rights. Talked about philosophy, spirituality and the ethics of drinking. We carried on with a selection of Beatles classics and a particularly moving rendition of Jerusalem which left nary a dry eye in the house. We left the bar well after it had “closed” and stumbled down the street in search of Chiang Mai Sausage. Sophie decided we needed some direction and so called a meeting in the back of a Sang Thaew that was parked in the street. We clambered into the back of the vacant van and tried to decide what our plan of action should be regarding our late night snack search. We all expressed gratitude for the wonderful night and experience we had in general and Gray was very happy to be drunk. We stumbled up the road to find the majority of our favourite street food restaurants closed and a distinct lack of the aforementioned herby delight. Noodle Soup wasn’t tickling any of our fancies so we stumbled into the 7/11 and I made the controversial decision to buy a Spicy Chicken Sticky Rice Burger http://www.thailandqa.com/forum/showthread.php?42427-Sticky-Rice-Burgers-from-7-Eleven
My “foodie” status was sorely tested by this culinary adventure. Gray was incredulous, and Sophie slightly disgusted that I should stoop so low considering the lofty pretentions that I claim as a food blogger and cookbook author. The truth is, I’ll try anything once and although this microwaved monstrosity was pretty bad it certainly went some way to soaking up the booze that had been consumed. I wouldn’t go there again but I don’t regret it..!
This wasn’t the only time my foodie credentials were questioned while Gray was in town either. On his last night we visited the Kafe 1984 bar on the Moon Muang Road which has tasty Beer Lao Dark and happened to be showing the Ryder Cup that night. We got a bit more drunk than expected and then got peckish. Now in this area of town there is plenty of very good street food which goes for around 30-40 Baht and is delicious. There is also Mikes Burger Bar across the street. For some reason I decided it was a must-try experience and so we stumbled across the moat to the surly staff who disdainfully took our orders from a menu board that looked like McDonalds in the 1980s.
I went for a Burger which came out looking a pale imitation of the already not-especially-inspiring picture and I mournfully bit tasteless bite after bite knowing I had spent about 6 times more on this disappointing morsel than I would have done on a noodle soup across the moat.
One night we went down the to Tha Pae gate stadium to see the Muay Thai boxing which is constantly advertised by extremely loud speakers from the back of trucks and by guys on motor bikes doing drive bys with fliers. We paid for our entry and were disappointed that our “free drink” was a thimble of non-alcoholic fruit punch. Still, our seats were decent and we enjoyed a series of bouts ranging from small children, women and at one point a group of 8 blindfolded fighters kicking each other and the ref without any clue as to what was going on. It was extremely entertaining and we even had the opportunity to climb into the ring at the end and do a little bit of fighting ourselves…
On Gray’s last day we went to the UN Irish pub for a big breakfast feast, one of the few places where you can get a decent sausage. We enjoyed a slap up meal with bubble & squeak, the Sunday papers (admittedly from a few days previously) and took in a leisurely morning.