Hi Mum, I’m in Chiang Dao

The beauty of independent travel is that you can change plans at a whim. We were sitting in Chiang Mai, looking at the guidebook, when we decided to fuck off Chiang Rai and head for Chiang Dao instead. And it was an inspired decision as Chiang Dao proved to be one of our favourite destinations so far.

Located in a northern corner of Thailand near the Burmese border and surrounded by looming cliffs, Chiang Dao is a sleepy little place, best known for its caves and hot springs. It’s not really a town with a whole lot going on, which suited us fine – we took in the sum total of Chiang Dao’s tourist attractions and still had plenty of time for lounging, wandering and relaxing. And (of course) eating – three nights in a row we ate the best Thai food we’d ever had, with highlights of battered and stir-fried morning glory (a leafy veg) and a spicy buffalo soup flavoured with kaffir lime. Following the meal with games of Scrabble under the stars was pretty bloody pleasant too.

The only drawback of the place was coming across one of the most repellent people we’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting. We were sitting having a quiet beer in another guesthouse, having to listen to a Very Loud American talk obnoxiously into his mobile phone as if it were hard if hearing. He was seated opposite his unfortunate “girlfriend”, and when she made some excuse to leave the table we were to be the next victim of his attention. After confusing Australians with Austrians, giving us his views on why you can be rude to Thai women, proclaiming Thai food to be unpalatable because of its lack of protein, declaring the only good thing about Laos to be opium and just generally being a lowest-common-denominator white trash fuckjob, we got sick of his company, finished our beers and left. He is a blemish on Thailand and the worst possible ambassador for Americans. End of rant.

So that’s about all we have to say about Chiang Dao. It’s a great little corner of Thailand and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re back there someday.

Scrabble tally: Alex 5, Amanda 3

*Photos to follow*

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Hi Mum, I’m in Chiang Mai

We were pretty relieved to be leaving Bangkok. It’s not that we had any antipathy towards the place, it was more that Bangkok is a bit too full on, a bit too demanding of your full attention all the time. So it was that we arrived in Thailand’s northern capital craving a more manageable and sedate destination, and Chiang Mai proved just the change of pace we needed.

After breaking through the scrum of taxi and tuk tuk drivers at the train station – one of the last vestiges of the Bangkok-style approach to tourists – we made it to our hotel to find our room ready for us (at 8.30am, a very pleasant surprise!). We were based in the old town of Chiang Mai, within the city’s ancient fortifications, a part of town that seems more immune to the traffic and fish ‘n’ chip restaurants than the area outside the walls. After a quick freshen up we were out on foot to explore the place and come to grips with it. We quickly took a shine to Chiang Mai – the lack of humidity, the lack of touts, the quiet leafy back streets and the friendly locals.

Our morning’s exertions had manifested in a thirst that could only be quenched by beer, so we repaired to a table on a laneway outside the local market where we could watch the traffic pass. Some of it stopped at this vendor opposite our table where people arrived in a steady stream to take away packages of what looked like fried chicken but turned out to be the most delicious banana fritters I’ve ever eaten. They weren’t the whole bananas that you typically see as fritters in Australian Chinese restaurants, but rather slices of banana coated in a batter made with coconut milk and sesame seeds. It was an outstanding accompaniment to our beer on the rocks (don’t judge us until you’ve tried it on a 35 degree day in situ).

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Once evening arrived, we decided to have a shufti at the shifty goods on offer at the night bazaar. Whilst most of the fakes on offer were of the same variety as those for sale in Bangkok and Batu Feringghi, I couldn’t help myself when it came to a Mont Blanc knockoff. I think I ended buying it mostly because I felt so proud that I’d knocked the price down from THB650 to 300.

The next day we were off to our first cooking class of the trip, in order to hone our Thai cooking skills. Whilst the class was pitched at a fairly basic level, the class we did was pretty good and hands on (even though we had to sneak ourselves the sharp knives). We threw together was we thought was a pretty passable couple of curries (red and green), stirfries, soups, spring rolls and desserts.

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In case you think we hadn’t had enough food tourism for one destination, Friday morning was the day we had planned to go to the weekly Chin Haw market. The Chin Haw are Chinese migrants (mostly from Yunnan province) who migrated to northern Thailand via Burma and Laos. We had read about this market on Eating Asia and in particular were very keen to try the Shan donuts – concoctions of black glutinous rice flour that are then deep fried and dunked in molasses.

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Utterly, deeply, delicious.

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Unfortunately, they are also dangerously drippy and it was while we were looking like complete dicks wiping molasses of ourselves and each other that I spied the authors of the Eating Asia blog, Robyn and Dave.

Like the sad, stalker fanboys that we are, Amanda and I went up to make their acquaintance and express our gratitude for all the wonderful eating experiences we’ve had so far. As it was, I think they were mildly creeped out by being recognised and accosted by a couple of molasses-covered Australians in an obscure Chiang Mai food market. Sorry guys. However, I suspect that if you actually knew how many of your recommendations we have visited so far, you might have made a run for it instead of giving us more tips for later on in our trip.

After we had stopped hyperventilating with excitement, it was time for some non food-related culture and we headed for the mountain-top temple of Doi Suthep. Our transport to the temple was in the local share taxis called songthaew – which are really just utes with bench seats in the back. They are a great way to travel round this part of Thailand. Just flag one down in the street, let the driver know which direction you’re going and, if he’s going there too, negotiate the price and get in.

Doi Suthep itself was nice – it’s at the top of a steep column of steps leading up the hillside and up the top, as expected, is … a temple. Guys, if you’re reading this blog expecting to come away with anything coherent or interesting about Buddhist culture or architecture, you may well be disappointed. It was relatively interesting, well touristed, extensively covered in gold (and bamboo scaffolding), strongly scented with incense and the view from the hill was nonexistent due to the pollution and haze covering the city.

In fact, the most interesting part may well be the trip back to the city in the songthaew. We travelled there and back with a Thai family – several possible aunts, a mum and dad, an infant of about 10 months (scarily passed from person to person as we hooned up a hillside in a backless ute) and a kid of about 4 years. On the way back down, all was silence, until about 3 minutes from the destination when the 4-year-old decided that all the rich food up at the temple didn’t agree with him, so he brought it all back up over himself and his mother. Next to Amanda. In multiple bursts. This started off a chain reaction of vomiting, not dissimilar to the scene in Stand By Me (“a complete and total barf-o-rama”) in which the kid’s auntie gestured frantically for a bag, then resorted to sticking her head out the window and being sick down the side of the songthaew. As we gratefully exited the taxi (Amanda even more gratefully, having narrowly missed the carnage entirely in her white dress), we saw the mother having a quiet sick into the roadside trees. Ah, songthaews – obviously the classy way to travel.

Hi Mum, I’m in Bangkok

We are definitely not the first people to make the insightful comment that Bangkok is seriously full-on. We were there for 2 and a half days and that was enough.

Happily, though, for once we arrived somewhere refreshed – the second class sleeper from Butterworth was neither frigid nor sweltering, and apart from Alex not quite fitting in the bed we had an enjoyable trip. Even broke out the Travel Scrabble (current tally: Alex 3 games, Amanda 2).

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Once in Bangkok we confused the tuk-tuk drivers by insisting on walking (a foolish errand in such ridiculous heat and humidity) and felt smug about avoiding obviously overpriced taxi rides (though they probably felt smug about not walking).

It seems that upon landing in the city, your options as a tourist are limited to:

– acting like a pathetic hippy by getting hennaed and braided down Khao San Road;

– acting like a complete twat and getting tattoos and dreadlocks that you’ll definitely regret (once you’ve eaten your 3am pad thai and started to sober up);

– visiting wats;

– visitng more wats;

– did we mention the wats?

A brief diversion re: pad thai – I’m sure it remains a classic Thai dish, but this stuff is everywhere, bland and pale and marketed (it seems) solely to tourists.

Anyway, skipping the braids, dreads, tattoos, henna and pad thai, we did indeed end up at Wat Pho. On our train trip from Malaysia we had been seated next to a crusty old Pom who was on his annual escape from the British winter. He was a quintessential ‘whinging Pom’ who seemed to have little good to say about the entirety of Southeast Asia.

“One thing about Europe is the architecture. Amazing! Not like here – looks like it was made by a remedial class using plasticine.”

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“Just boring. Just little gold bits on the ends.”

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Alex: “So what do you do for a crust?”

“Oh, I’m a bricklayer.”

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Anyway, we ignored his sagacious insight and had a lovely time at Wat Pho. We were almost tempted to throw away good money to have our palms read in the grounds of the temple, after watching a particularly gullible American woman listen with rapt attention to her fortune-teller and scribble down everything he said verbatim. This guy could have taught John Edwards a thing or two – he even began to pause and say ‘Write that down’ after delivering a particularly juicy piece of wisdom. Luckily we came to our senses and moved on.

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We were ‘watted out’ after our very first temple so instead headed across the Chao Praya river to Siriraj Hospital. Squirreled away lies a collection of museums, but the one we were there for was the Museum of Forensic Pathology. It was way more gory than it sounds. Photos of horrific accidents; dissected hearts, lungs, brains and other organs showing stab wounds (identified by red plastic arrows denoting the path of the knife) and the effects of strokes, sclerosis and cirrhosis; skulls with perfect bullet holes; more deformed foetuses than were strictly necessary; and, of course, some mummified serial killers. You’ll be thankful that the museum had a strict ‘No Photography’ rule. We were less thankful that we’d just eaten lunch.

It wouldn’t be a successful visit anywhere if we didn’t find some seriously good food. This time, it was at the out-of-the-way Nang Leong market where we found these delicious bite-sized desserts.

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They’re flavoured with coconut, mango, banana and pumpkin, and are steamed in tiny pandan-leaf baskets. An absolute steal at 10 for 25baht (about 85 cents).