Chiang Mai: Food and Culture in a Green Mountain Wonderland

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Khao Soi noodles. Incredible.

Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second most populous city, wouldn’t be described as sprawling. The pace is slow and the buildings are dwarfed by Bangkok’s financial districts. As we fly in, the mountains roll above the city, covered in a lush green. The languid streets come alive at night as the former capital of the Lanna empire turns into street food heaven.

But, it’s early in the morning when we arrive. After checking into our quaint and extremely appropriate guesthouse decorated by warm wood, we hop on the street to get some breakfast. We go for the city’s pride: Khao Soi. Egg noodles in a spicy broth of curry and coconut milk served with pickled shallots, dried noodles, and chili. Served with a choice of pork or chicken– it’s totally awesome and amazingly delicious. The dirty parking lot of a food stall called Khao Soi Khun Yai is situated next to a beautiful temple and is only open four hours a day, but still manages to be one the best known spots in town for this regionally famous dish. Since the noodles are delicious and the portions are that of a light breakfast, I order a bowl of the spicy noodle soup. Tons of chilies accompany ground peanuts, rice noodles, pickled jalapenos, and chicken. The bowl is hot, spicy, and just as delicious as the first.

And just like that, our first day in Chiang Mai has begun. The city is home to thousands of temples. Since they are so abundant and the city is small, we walk around until they sneak up on us as we pass by. We see the unusually busy Wat Phra Singh, which is littered with people taking their shoes off, paying the monk for his blessing of hymns and holy water, snapping photos and videos on their phones. We learn later that its the first day of Vassa, which marks the beginning of the wet season in Theravada Buddhism, a time where monks retreat to temples and monasteries for a long hibernation of meditation and relinquishment of pleasurable vices.

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Monks get ready for a ceremony.

There is a ceremony gathering, slowly monks of all ages make it in front of the sequence of Buddha statues. All are welcome for the ceremony. Easterners, Westerners, tourists, locals, even wild dogs. While a monk speaks in a monotone drone that seems more like an extended prayer than preaching through a microphone. We can only discern a few words, “Chiang Mai,” “Buddha,” and “Bodhi.” As he preaches, the spectators aren’t necessarily captivated. Instead everyone is talking to each other and browsing on their phones. The majority of the people are Thai and the rest are Chinese. The Westerners trickle out as the ceremony begins. Only the hardcore Buddhist moms are silent while the monk speaks; one tells us to face our feet away from the Buddha so we respectfully oblige. As the monk speaks, every once in a while he lets out a boisterously low laugh either at the dogs, or simply at the things he is saying. We wait around for around an hour for the monks to perform their bout of singing and bowl playing, but I don’t think that moment would have ever came. Silently, we try not to laugh as the monk speaks. It is moving, a total culture shock, and really fucking funny. Overrun by the undeniable hilarity of the scene, we retreat to coffee for a recap of what we’ve endeavored.

We pick a shop for a cold Thai iced coffee and a sit; an oasis in the thick wet heat of the outside. We leave the cafe cooled and fully caffeinated, and traverse an area with multiple temples, all beautifully unique.

After taking in all of the majestic gold, it is time for a beer. We plan on taking a few to a Muay Thai fight, Thailand’s national sport. Upon entering a 711, signs on the fridge door notify us that, since today is Vassa, it is illegal to sell or buy alcohol. We decide that we won’t be oppressed, and our beer rebellion is afoot.

As Americans, our defiance apparently doesn’t end with a foreign government. The situation is relatively harmless because we have the ultimate power of tourism-declaring ignorance. My girlfriend Thyme takes the lead because she is livid by the idea that we aren’t allowed to drink as we please. She says we need to get in a tuk tuk and tells our driver where to go. Just like that we are in the heart of a neon tourist district that I didn’t know existed. “Where are we,” I ask, and we laugh. Our driver speeds up and slams on the breaks when a tourist or red cab gets in the way. It turns out the ex-pat pub we’re headed to is closed on Wednesdays. At a loss, we walk down the neon alley and spot beers being served at a touristy Thai restaurant. As we sit down and order two gargantuan Changs and sai ua, or Thai pork sausage. Then we realize that they are pouring all the alcoholic beverages in paper soda cups, safely concealing them from the eyes of the junta.

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Drunken, blurry photo of this delicious late-night meal.

To an indifferent pacifist like myself, a boxing match is uninteresting without a beer in hand and a buzz in my head. Knowingly missing the fight, it is time for some Midnight Sticky Rice. A popular late-night spot walking distance from incognito beer haven, we wander into the streets and find the open-air stall covered by a roof of sturdy wood. They serve nam prik goong herechili paste served with deliciously fried meats, pickled vegetables, and you guessed it, sticky rice. Meats include fried chicken, more Thai sausage which is much better than the first, and other countless salty snacks. In our mindset, it’s absolutely fucking delicious. We wobble on the wooden table as we gorge ourselves, it has begun to rain warm, long droplets. Smelling of salt, chili, and beer we hail a red cab back to our guesthouse for a deep slumber.

A gloomy morning and we are very excited for the day’s events. We’re picked up in a truck by a woman and share the bed of the truck with an American family from San Diego. We are headed to an elephant sanctuary where we’ll get to pet, feed, and bathe with one of the world’s largest and most intelligent creatures.

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The valley of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

We stop to pick up a group of young Slovenian women and we hit it off after asking where they’re from. We went to Slovenia when we were in Europe last summer so we’re eager to talk to them about their country. Add a German-Canadian and an Iranian-Canadian into the mix and the truck is the rolling UN. We drive an hour up the mountains to meet another truck-full of people for our rendezvous with the elephants. The scenery along the drive is slow, simple, and beautiful. A deep green drenches the rolling hills, which are really modest mountains. Looking out the back of the carp covered truck bed, watching the green go by with the modesty of everyday life, everything is just fine.

We make it to the sanctuary, which is a quaint valley between the hills. There’s a river, a puddle of mud, and a gloom that encompasses it all. It is serene, misty, and pensive. While we’re changing into the traditional garb the caretakers give us to keep from getting dirty, a gargantuan elephant runs off, clearly a rebellious teenager.

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A stray dog runs after our truck.

We walk down into the valley and begin feeding the elephants. There are two mothers, two babies, and the teenager. We shove sugar cane and whole bananas into their gaping mouths, only stopping to peel the bananas for the babies. They eat the food out of our hands and steal it from us with their trunks, rolling them around their stock pile. They eat our handfuls of food, but they can’t get enough. The caregivers tell the group that we’ll need to keep throwing food up onto their tongues. Elephants can eat more sugar cane than I imagined possible. They give us kisses in return, and show us genuine affection.

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Thyme loving an elephant.

After the giant beasts are well-fed, we change into swimsuits for the infamous mud bath. As we walk through the liquid and are sucked into the sludge, the group is hesitant, moaning with complaints. The caregivers sense our standoffish behavior and promptly throw mud at our backs and smear it on our faces. With the band-aid ripped off, we are ready to play in the filth with the largest mammal on Earth. The babies thrash about, falling into the pond and kicking their feet. The mothers put down their heads, allowing us to spread the cooling semi-solid over their bodies. It begins to sprinkle a fine mist, and for one of the only moments in my recent memory, I feel truly alive. We are hollering with joy, lobbing mud at the elephants and each other.

“Da baybay! Da baybay!” the caretakers shout every time the infant appears to be having fun.

Then the larger baby elephant runs toward Thyme, looking to play. Coming in too close and too fast, she is forced to push him out of the way before he tramples over her. The moment flashes by as Thyme narrowly avoids injury. After everyone is covered in brown, we make the transition to the river to wash off. We splash the elephants and each other with buckets, making sure everyone gets clean. Until suddenly, the teen elephant becomes inexplicably enraged and storms off up the hill. The German-Canadian woman from our truck runs away from the furious elephant and falls on a rock, cutting her knee. A young caregiver runs after the angered creature, and amazingly jumps on top of her to guide her away from the group. She shakes him off, and he falls to the floor. For a moment, everyone braces for tragedy as we wait for her to trample the caregiver to death, but she safely skips over him, running off and screaming loudly with her trunk. Everyone experiences the power of the elephant in unison, and for a moment we realize how truly wildly these animals are. Still, the impeccable care the men provide to the damaged and fragile rescues is evident and beautiful.

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The smaller of the two babies.

After the long drive and a continuous conversation about the sad state of American politics with our new foreign friends, we are in need of something comforting and classic. We need curry. First though, after our long day, we want a drink and a recap. We hit up a bar across the street from our guesthouse. Situated in a garden with dozens of Buddha statues, Faces serves beer, wine, and food. We have red wine, shrimp pot-stickers, and the illustrious BeerLao which is reportedly the best beer to come out of Southeast Asia. And it comes from, of all places, Laos, the poor communist country to the Northeast border of Thailand. We have their dark lager and it is spicy and creamy for such a brew. Delicious. The hazy atmosphere of the cryptic garden bar creeps into our heads with the wine and we are ready for some spicy ass food.

We’re walking to Aroon Rai, which has been serving the same home-style Thai food for over fifty years. A woman that greets us saying “only curry,” but that’s fine by us. We get two pints of Singha and order three curries to share. Green curry with chicken and eggplant, a similar version to what we had in Bangkok, yellow curry with potatoes and pork, and Burmese brown curry with beef. Wash it all down with a couple of Singhas and if there is a greater pleasure on Earth, I doubt you could find it.

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Defiant elephant runs into the valley.

Today has kicked our asses, so we walk back to our hotel for ten hours of unconscious pleasure. The next day we plan on going to Doi Suthep National Park, but are genuinely exhausted. Though it will forever be categorized under the file of “regrets,” we opt to live like a local in preparation for our traditional Khantoke dinner and dance tonight.

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Buddha statues and some wine.

We start our lazy day off with some lunch. We head to a highly rated place that’s near a coffee shop we want to try. We order fried fish, greens, and spicy chicken with basil and hot peppers. All served with magical sticky white rice. We drink Thai cokes and have good time until…SPLAT, a bird violently shits on Thyme’s shoulder. The sound is so loud that I stand to see if she is hurt. The waitresses laugh and cover their mouths. The spectacle is admittedly hilarious though Thyme certainly doesn’t think so.

Deciding to take it easy, the thing we want to do most is drink some coffee while reading and writing. We walk over to Australian born expat coffee bar Rist8to. On their physical menu, which is unusual for a coffee shop, they boast all sorts of drinks including alcoholic coffee beverages. We order a Mexican Mocha with Baileys and a coffee liqueur iced coffee. Everything is sublime while we sip our drinks, read our books, write, and relax.

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The best curries I’ve ever had. And I love curry.

Then we return to the guesthouse to get clean for our dinner and dance. We take a red cab, which feels funny in our relatively sharp clothing. The cabs are really red trucks with a tarp over the back. We are met at the dinner with the traditional greeting, two hands clasped together pointed straight up so that when you bow your head your nose almost touches your index fingers– something you will run into all over Thailand. We take off our shoes and are seated on orange rugs with cushion back rests. We are offered drinks before our meal comes out. I go for a mojito because I love the mint and lime they have in this part of the world. Thyme decides on a beer. The fact that we are so readily offered alcoholic beverages surprises me considering the experience we’ve had concerning alcohol, political conservatism, and religion in the country. I am equally interested in the fact that the vast majority of people here are Thai. It might be sacrilegious to get buzzed while watching dances that were originally performed as offerings to Buddha, but I am having a hell of a time doing it.

First, we are served pork rinds, Burmese curry, sticky rice, fried chicken, pickled vegetables, all with a tomato nam prik with ground pork, which is my favorite part. I dip every bite in it. While we eat a band performs traditional songs. Homemade drums resonate with the powerful low and hypnotic rhythm. A single-stringed twangy instrument dances in the high frequencies. The performance blurs the individual elements, the dissonance of reality comes together in the moments that the improvisation meets the same note. The mesmerizing, omnipresent beat keeps the consistency. You get lost in the cohesion, this is my kind of music.

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Alcoholic coffee beverages are amazing.

Then the dancers come to the stage, the band plays a simple, trudging beat with a lazy, opium induced solo. The girls all have their long fake fingernails pointed at the sky for the audience to see. This is a welcome dance for foreign visitors, where the long fingernails are considered an esoteric beauty.

Then a sequence of dances unfold, all of which are truly beautiful. A man dances with knives and fire, smoothly handling the perils, executing with vigor and confidence. After an incredible display of talent, culture, and passion, my head is hot with fatigue and reverie. Despite that I want to go to the North Gate night market, I am completely thrashed need to get some sleep for the flight in the morning.

And, that is it. We’re leaving Thailand and I know I will miss it dearly. I don’t know how a country with such problems can be so heart warming. The people are beyond amiable. In a country where Americans have mountains compared to their mole hills, I never felt threatened. A religious, aggressive government that poorly represents its constituents and tries to keep the status quo. The poor idolizing an opulent throne. Thai charm, friendliness, and humor are seemingly limitless. The people here know how to enjoy life; because right now is all they’ve got. So they have a drink, enjoy a conversation, and eat some fucking good food.


6 thoughts on “Chiang Mai: Food and Culture in a Green Mountain Wonderland

  1. I kind of feel a bit saddened by your comments at the end. It sounds like you are saying Thailand as nothing and America has everything. Which I don’t feel is at all accurate. There government is not that religiously aggressive, compared with some countries. Yes they have different rules. I.e you cant drink on some days of the year, but that is just the tradition there. Aside from that I feel that the country, is not really oppressed by the religion. Thai people have a lot more than you think. Aside from that, I enjoyed reading, about your trip there.

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    1. Thanks for reading, I do not mean to say America has everything and Thailand doesn’t. That would be far from the truth. But what I do think is that the people in Thailand don’t realize how much they’re not oppressed but constrained. For example, if you speak poorly about the monarchy you could go to prison for very long time. But overall the Thai people are much better off than many. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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