May 24 - June 2: Thailand

Part III: Chiang Mai

After our stay on the peaceful beaches of Ko Samet we were on to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. From Ko Samet, we took a four hour bus ride to Bangkok to catch an overnight train to Chiang Mai. We and Julie had just enough time in Bangkok to hunt down a highly recommended restaurant, famous for their pad thai. We had tried unsuccessfuly to find this restaurant nearly a week earlier when we were in Bangkok with Nancy's sister and fiance. This time we made sure to have the address written down ahead of time in Thai script. The last time we tried to find the restaurant, a clueless cabby drove us around in circles for hours.

We were rewarded with an excellent and inexpensive dinner of pad thai. Pad thai is a Thai stir-fry like dish whose basic ingredients are rice noodles, egg, bean sprouts, fish sauce, and peanuts; we sampled several of the varieties on the menu, and all were excellent.

We finally found it! It didn't look like much more than a messy partially-outdoor eatery but the food was great ...
Most of the cooking is done out on the sidewalk, amidst a fog of stir-fry vapor.

If you'd like to try this gread Pad Thai restaurant out next time you are in Bangkok, the info is:

Thip Samai Noodle Shop
313 Mahachai Rd.
Samranrat Pranakorn
Bangkok 10200
(02) 221-6280

After filling up, we headed back to the train station. Here we are later in the evening on the overnight train to Chiang Mai. Nancy worked on some medical school stuff while Bryan started playing the PC version of Metal Gear Solid which he had bought in Bangkok ... putting the laptop computer to good use ...
First thing off of the train, we checked into our very nice hotel, the Galare Guesthouse. After the necessary shower after a night on the train, we headed out to explore the city. Our first stop was a small market. Lots of fresh Thai fruits and vegetables were on display, and as with every place in Thailand, the wonderfully unpleasant aroma of durian was not too far away.
Next was lunch at a fantastic, cheap restaurant, Aroon Rai, that came recommended in the Lonely Plant guide to Thailand. Nancy found a motorcycle just her size ...Let's see, there was lots of delicious curry and best of all, Nancy found mango sticky rice. And, she also had extra mangoes in her backpack there to eat with the sticky rice.
Bargain hunting in Chiang Mai.
These lychees were by far the biggest we have ever seen. They may not look like much in this picture, but they were the size of small apples. Impressive.
A busy market in Thailand. This is how grocery shopping should be all over the world.

We decided to rent bicycles the next day and try to find our way out to the ruins that we had read about in our guide book.

On the outskirts of the city we saw this very nice mansion.

Julie and Nancy are taking a break by the side of the road. Biking in tropical weather is not an easy task.
This bridge was closed and a lot of people were gathered on it looking over the edge at something. We thought it might have been some kind of accident but it was just some guys standing on a big pile of tree bits that had gotten stuck in a large mass underneath the bridge. They had the unenviable task of clearing the debris out with nothing more than some shovels. Looks like they're going to be there for a long time ...
After some comic misdirections we managed to find our way to the ruins, with the help of some local boys on a scooter who led us there. Or, at least, we thought that what we found was the ruins. Turns out it wasn't - it was a buddhist temple, still in use. Good for some photos, anyway.
Did we mention how cool Thai architecture is? Well, take a look at this awesome temple.
After giving up on finding the ruins we started to head back to Chiang Mai. Lost again and not knowing which way was the way back, we happened across a sign whose inscription seemed familiar ... yes! It was the ruins! A few minutes bicycling down a country road and there we were.
Only, it wasn't that much to look at. Most of the buildings had long, long since crumbled (guess that's why they call them ruins, eh?), but after some careful digging and a little bit of restoration by local archeologists, the general layout of the set of temples that once stood in this area was revealed.
We're so happy to have finally found the ruins!
Nancy wants to be shrunk down to two inches tall so that she can live in this cute little mini-temple.
This structure is probably the most well-preserved of all of the ruins.
Here is Nancy practicing the bicycle mounting technique that she had seen so many Chinese use in Beijing ...first step on the pedal with your left foot, then use your right foot to push off the ground to start rolling, then swing the leg over (in front of course, over the low bar, so that you can still wear a skirt while riding a bike), all while the bike is moving, in one fluid motion ... keep trying Nancy, you'll get it soon enough.
Getting lost in back roads and country neighborhoods in rural Thailand is one of the more pleasant ways to spend an afternoon.
Here's a view from the handlebars. Sunny skies and smooth sailing ahead.
Here are the grounds of our hotel in Chiang Mai. Nice, huh? And cheap - it seemed impossible to us at first, but Thailand is actually cheaper than China! The hotel staff was incredibly nice and helpful.
It's nice that they have a guard dog on the premises ... we certainly felt a lot safer with him around! Only, we never actually saw him do anything besides nap.

Finally we get to the real purpose for visiting Chiang Mai - the world-famous Chiang Mai Thai cooking schools! We spent each of the next three days taking cooking classes at the Chang Mai Thai Cookery School. It was a blast, made better by the location - we were taken out to the school's owner's country grounds each day where we cooked in the peaceful serenity of the Thai countryside.

On the first day we started with garnishes. Here's Julie carving a realistic-looking leaf from a slice of carrot. These were real knives, none of those child safety pumpkin carving knives at this school.
We also made roses out of tomatoes. Nancy's always smiling when she has food in her hands.
Even Bryan gets in on the action - check it out: stirring and cutting at the same time. Not bad! He looks pretty good in an apron. Maybe he should wear one more often...
We made one of the delicious Thai soups using fresh ingredients. Nancy pauses just long enough for a picture before devouring her creation.
Julie didn't waste any time either before digging in.
Lunchtime! After a full morning of cooking four dishes (including the soup that we ate earlier), we finally settle down for a break and some grub.
  Today's lunch consisted of:
  • Roast Duck Curry (Gaeng Phed Ped Yang)
  • Fried Chicken with Ginger (Gai Phad King)
  • Spring Rolls (Paw Pia Tord)
Later in the afternoon we prepared a few more dishes including mango with sticky rice but after three more hours of cooking we were just too exhausted - and stuffed! - to take any more photos. But we did get to manage to get this shot of some of the beautiful plants growing around the patio where we were cooking. Many of the ingredients that we used were plucked fresh from the garden.
Can you believe that they have Swenson's in Thailand? For those of you who don't know (and Bryan sure didn't) Swenson's is an ice cream parlor that was popular in California in the 80's. It seems to have disappeared from the U.S.A. but it's alive and well in Thailand, as Nancy's sundae surely proves.
The next day: back to cooking school!
  Lunch, day two:
  • Green Curry with Chicken (Gaeng Kheo Wan Gai)
  • Thai Fried Noodles (Phad Thai)
  • Thai Hot and Sour Prawn Soup (Tom Yam Goong)
Later that day we went to a Thai handmade ceramics factory showroom. We wanted to see all of their great ceramics but ... the lights went out! That meant that we had to resort to the old fashioned way of doing things - carrying around candles and trying to make our way through the rows of delicate ceramics stacked precariously on shelves with only the feeble light of a couple of candles to guide us. But we managed to get through it all without breaking anything.
Cooking school, day three: we started out with the labor-intensive task of grinding our own Penang curry with a stone mortar and pestle. Here's Nancy giving her arm muscles a good working. We may have seen dozens of little old ladies on the street making curry paste from scratch, but this was not a simple task.
This is our esteemed teacher - the owner of the cooking school - letting us in on some of the secrets of Thai cooking.
One of their favorite "tricks" at the school is heating coconut milk on high heat in a wok until the water evaporates and you're left with a sludge of coconut milk solids and coconut oil - the perfect base for curry.
Settling into another feast cooked by yours truly ...
  Today we had:
  • Penaeng Curry with Pork (Gaeng Panaeng Muu)
  • Chiang Mai Curry with Chicken (Gaeng Hanglay Gai)
  • Sweet and Sour Vegetables (Phad Prio Wan Phak)
In the afternoon we tried our hand at some Thai deserts. Bryan especially liked the black sticky rice with coconut milk and sugar. Nancy liked it too, but she complained that it stuck to her teeth ...

We graduated from cooking school stuffed and happy. Of course Bryan promptly forgot everything he learned but none of it was lost on Nancy. She's been happily practicing her techniques in Beijing with all the goods that we lugged back to China from Thailand.

Later that afternoon we went to a few Thai supermarkets looking for some good dried spices and curry powders to take home with us. In Thailand scooters outnumber cars by a good margin. But they don't take up too much space in supermarket parking lots.
Speaking of scooters, that evening there was some kind of festival on the street a few blocks away from our hotel. Our curiosity piqued, we made our way through the crowds to see what all the commotion was. Turns out that it was some kind of club meeting of the Vespa owners of Thailand. There were rows and rows of Vespas (classic Italian scooters) decked out and individualized with fancy paint jobs and accessories. It had the feel of a car show in the U.S., with everyone standing proudly next to their polished, chromed-out vehicle. Only in Thailand, it's Vespas that make people drool, not cars.
At a Thai silk factory we watched a woman boiling and then spinning the silk threads of of silk worm cocoons.
Nancy loves flowers.
Bryan loves statues of dragons.
The next day we rented a scooter to go tooling around Chiang Mai. Lots and lots of foreigners in Thailand rent scooters as a way to get around - they are exceedingly cheap, a mere $5 a day, and very convenient. First stop: the Chiang Mai garden and nursery center, where Nancy was on the lookout for her favorite flower - the orchid.
Bryan hides in the foliage disguised as a stud with a scooter helmet on. Pretty effective camouflage, huh?
These photos are for the flower lovers out there. Enjoy. Nancy's older sister especially loves these beautiful flowers so we took lots of photos.
Later on it began to rain so we ducked into the closest cover we could find - underneath the archway at the entrance to a buddhist temple. What a spiritual place to wait out the rain.
The rain quickly cleared out and we made our way far out of town and pointed the scooter towards the hills.
On the grounds of another temple up in the hills we came across this cow peacefully munching away.
Then we were spotted by one of the dogs on the premises. It was a stare-down between Nancy and the dog. Who do you think won? Let's just say that Nancy was planning on how she was going to jump onto the car behind her for safety.
Back in town we made our way to the local mall where a really, really bad band was doing covers of hard rock songs to promote Nescafe. Bizarre enough to warrant a photo, don't you think?
Nancy enjoys yet another mango with sticky rice, which was plentiful, cheap, and tasty in northern Thailand. If you're looking for mango sticky rice, forget southern Thailand - you gotta head north. Sadly, this is the last mango sticky rice of the journey.
Nancy is wide-eyed with wonder over the taste of her fresh-squeezed orange juice, yet another luxury of Thailand that we indulged in.
Thus ended our stay in Thailand. Time enough for a few pictures of a nice garden display in the Chiang Mai airport before we boarded the plane for China's Yunnan southern province. We'd spent nearly three weeks outside of China and were looking forward to seeing what was in store for us in the mountains of Yunnan.
Back to: Thailand (Part II)

On to: Yunnan, China (Part I)

Back to Bryan and Nancy's Trip to China Main Page