Saturday, 17 July 2010

Soul Kitchen

If there's one thing guaranteed to put a smile on Sammies face it's Thai food. Our first proper date was in a Thai restaurant and if we're too tired too cook after work then it's more often than not Thai that ends up on the menu. So, as you can imagine there was more than a little excitement about finally arriving in Thailand and heading for our first stop - Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of the the North and home reputedly to the nations finest and most authentic cooking.

Heading into Thailand from Laos had taken us a little longer than we'd planned. The proposed twelve hour bus journey from Luang Prabang to the Thai border had turned into a sweaty, sleepless and increasingly surreal twenty six hour slog involving a broken down coach, numerous changes of grumpy drivers, a distressed puppy rescued from an airtight box in the baggage hold, some overly aggressive border staff and a few mad dashes for connections, so we were fairly relieved when we finally made it to our hotel located on a small Soi near Tapae Gate. After grabbing a well needed shower and siesta, we got the lowdown from the hotel owner on where to eat and it turned out we didn't have to walk far at all - about twenty yards in fact.

From the first few mouthfuls of superb curry we monstered that afternoon, Sammies mildly concerning infatuation with Thai cuisine mutated into full blown addiction, with red curry soon being eaten for lunch and dinner some days. If there was a Betty Ford Clinic for Thai Curry obsessives then I would have been on the phone tout suite. Things nearly went too far when I found out from a local guy that curry is actually traditionally eaten for lunch and breakfast, as opposed to dinner, but we figured that three a day would probably be pushing it.

Anyway, suffice to say the food in Chiang Mai is very, very good. Thailand is obvioulsy a reasonably developed country though now and while we had expected to see more of the trappings of western society it was still weird to see McDonald's, Burgerkings, branches of Starbucks, Seven Elevens and even Tesco lining the streets, particularly after spending the last few months in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam which are largely devoid of big brands and tacky commercialision, but that's globalisation, and good or bad its an inevitability. Thankfully, Chaing Mai hasn't caved in and sold its soul completely. In fact, if you ignore the chains stores its a very charming place to explore. Cycling around in the city heat we saw more temples than you can shake a stick at and some fascinating old streets and buildings, but where Chiang Mai really comes into its own is the Sunday Night Market.

We'd been told this was pretty special and "quite large", but this turned out to be somewhat of an understatement. Literally from the door of our hotel located down a tiny side street, stalls extended as far as the eye could see, appearing almost miraculously over the course of a few short hours in the afternoon. By the time the sun had set, several thousand artists, craft and food sellers, musicians, hawkers, locals and tourists were packed into the crowed city centre, creating the feel of a street festival. Temples became food courts, symbolic perhaps of a dedication to food as much as religion, and stalls inside served some of the most delicious street grub either of us had ever eaten; home made mini fishcakes with chili jam, marinated BBQ chicken breast on a stick, fried quails eggs, incredible tempura prawns, fried seaweed, squid and octopus satays, spiced omelet in banana leaf, fish curries, papaya salads, sesame pancakes, a rainbow of amazing fresh sushi and too many other mouthwatering things to mention. This is the sort of food you can only fantasise about getting in a Thai restaurant back home, and when you're done wandering the sreets you can grab a beer and get a half hour foot massage right on the side of the pavement for less than the cost of a Big Mac...

Having spent a few days checking out the city, taking in an entertaining night at the Muay Thai Kickboxing and eating pretty much everything in sight, we decided it was time to go get ourselves an education. There are some excellent cooking schools in Chaing Mai and after a bit of research and asking around we found ourselves a well-recommended school for an afternoon class (Asia Scenic), which also turned out to be about fifty yards from our hotel (we were clearly staying on the right street!). From a large list of dishes we could select the ones we wanted to make, and once we'd made our decision as a group we spent half an hour in the herb garden learning about the various flavours that make up the distinctive taste of Thai food and how to use them properly. It was then off to the local market to buy the rest of the ingredients.

We opted for the classics figuring that these would give a better all round understanding, and between us we made fresh Spring Rolls, Papaya salad, Red Curry, Massaman Curry, Cashew Chicken, Tom Sab soup and Tom Yum. Learning how to make the pastes for the curry from scratch was probably the most enlightening part and thankfully everything turned out really well. The surprising thing is that its not actually that difficult to make good Thai food at all; the trick, much like most good cooking is balancing the ingredients and making sure they're super fresh and high quality, which is probably a little easier in Chaing Mai than Oxford.

Our next stop was Pai, North West of Chaing Mai near the Burmese Border. On the drive up we encountered probably the best example yet of managing to get totally and completely fucking lost. Pulling into a little service station on a steep mountain road halfway to Pai, one of the three bubbly Swedish girls who were in our mini-van asked "how far is the town from the beach please?" to which everyone looked at each other with some confusion and responded "what beach?", "the beach! The town is on an island yes!".

....Now, I'm not sure how these girls manage to cross the road on their own or even why their parents actually let them out of their local neighbourhood without a minder, but it doesn't take a genius to realise that a town sitting at altitude, ringed by mountains on the Thai/Burmese border, several hundred miles inland is neither going to be on an island or have a beach (unless you're in Laos that is...). After a bit of explanation about the fundamentals of geography and map reading by fellow passengers, they realised that they were in fact travelling North and not South, where all the pretty islands with the pretty beaches are. They stayed one night in Pai and the following morning made the long journey down to Southern Thailand. Or maybe Central China. Who knows. Either way they probably should have given Pai a bit more of a chance, as although it does have a striking of lack of beach, its not a bad place to spend a few days.

If you are a hippy and/or enjoy spending large amounts of your time stoned and doing sod all except watching Dragonflies buzz around on the river and talking rubbish with people with massive beards, homemade shoes and knitted woolly hats, then the chances are you'll love Pai. It is the quintessential nouveau hippy-chic town. It's very laid back and has a gentle rural feel to it with a smattering of boutique (ah, that word again...) hotels dotted around. As a result it's easy to meet friendly people and very easy to let days slip away doing nothing, which has its own certain charm, but to be honest you do start to feel like you are slipping into a lower state of conciousness after a while. While we were in Pai we did make some new friends however - Guy, Justin, Sheree and Danielle who we spent a few days kicking back with and exploring the nearby waterfalls. We all decided to head back to Chiang Mai for a few more days of food and fun and couldn't resist hitting the market again before heading south.

So far, travelling through the wilder parts of Asia we had avoided any of the sporadic political flair ups that tend to characterise developing nations, so it was a tad ironic really that now we had reached Thailand, home of the Modern Eastern Package Holiday, that a crisis of sizable proportions was gathering momentum.

Watching the news the night before we left there was increasing tension in Thailand with the political protests in Bangkok. Televised meetings between the two parties in dispute over governance had been on six channels simultaneously in most bars and restaurants all day long, and after two days still they hadn't yet produced a deal. It was looking like the issues created by Red Shirt camps in the city centre weren't going anywhere for the time being and we were heading right into the capital the following morning. Perfect timing.

View our pics here:

Chiang Mai & Pai

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