Chiang Mai Street Food

Written while sitting at a nightly, pop-up restaurant on a sidewalk, next to a busy road.

Something I’ve noticed about Chiang Mai (maybe Thailand in general), is the night food scene. New York may have mastered the $1 slice of pizza available until dawn, but in Chiang Mai you can get a whole plate of Pad Thai. Food is cheap here, and available everywhere, at all hours.

These pop-up restaurants and food stalls start setting up as the sun goes down. The darker the sky gets, the busier the food stalls. Sidewalks and parking lots become make-shift food courts. It’s hard to walk down the street without being confronted by the smells and sounds of dinner being served. They spill into the street and insist that traffic goes around them. In New York I used to stop at the pizza place or Chinese restaurant near the subway station, or order delivery to my apartment, but in Chiang Mai, people go to these pop-up restaurants. They eat dinner outside, as they watch the traffic go by. The markets are popular with people of all ages. They attract locals, expats, and tourists alike. Our differences melt away as we wait for our meals.

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You’ll find all sorts of Thai food here. All of the well-known dishes are available: Pad Thai, fried rice, noodles of varying types, mango sticky rice, steam buns, fruit smoothies, and mysterious skewers of what looks like meatballs (those seem to be really popular).

I can’t bring myself to try the mysterious skewers of “meat” though. It always looks fake to me. I have flashbacks to a weird meal in a French castle. We asked 3 times and got 3 different answers about what kind of meat it was.

At one of the markets I often frequent, it’s like the sidewalk was designed for this nightly market. The sidewalk is extremely wide, plenty of space for food stalls, tables, and chairs. It’s a mini city of food. It’s impressive, the complex Thai dishes that are cooked in such limited spaces. I guess that’s what food truck chefs do too, but these food vendors were doing it before it was cool.

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One of the more popular food stalls at this market is run by a woman in a cowgirl hat. It seems to be her signature look. She achieved some international celebrity when Anthony Bourdain visited her when he came to Chiang Mai on his show. I’d say she’s earned her fame. The food she serves is delicious! As far as I can tell, the only option on the menu is stewed pork. You can also get intestines. The woman in the cowgirl hat wields a meat cleaver and cuts up portions as they are ordered. For 30 baht, or less than $1 USD, you’ll get some tender, tasty pork served over rice with a soft boiled egg and some pickled greens. That’s right, a whole meal for less than a dollar! And it’s a good meal!

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With delicious, traditional, cheap food sold on almost every street corner, why would you ever buy 7-Eleven sandwiches?

 

 

I got a tattoo!

Yup, you read that right. Ok, it’s not that new. I got it in August.

I had been thinking about this for a while. I thought I would wait until a milestone, like my 30th birthday. Then I quit my job and came to Thailand. I was taking this chance, embarking on a new adventure. I realized this birthday, my 28th, would be the first one I spend abroad. That’s a milestone. I started thinking about a tattoo more and more.

The hardest part was deciding what I wanted. Whatever I chose would be on my body forever. FOREVER. Forever is a very long time.

Sunflowers make me smile. They always have. They are just such smiley, happy flowers. I dream of living in a field of sunflowers. Insert profound metaphor about the sunflower constantly turning to face the sun here.

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So that’s what I went with. A sunflower, on my arm.

I found a tattoo artist that came highly recommended, met with him to discuss what I wanted, and made an appointment and put down a deposit. That was the important part. I put down a deposit, so now I couldn’t chicken out.

I found a friend to hold my hand and it was all set!

It didn’t hurt as much as I expected it to. It felt like a cat scratching me…for an hour. I couldn’t watch though. My friend kept assuring me that it was looking good. After an hour of cat scratches it was done. I love it.

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Some much needed chocolate ice cream and careful washing followed. Now it’s healed and lovely.

I only got buyers remorse once. Then I remembered that I actually love it, and that it’s on there forever so I don’t have a choice. But, I actually love it and have no regrets.

People say it’s addicting. People say once you get your first tattoo, you keep wanting more and more. Not sure I get that. I mean I might consider another one in the future, but I’m definitely not addicted.

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I Walked ALLLLL the Way to the Top

I’ve been told that if you come to Chiang Mai without going to Doi Suthep, then you haven’t really been to Chiang Mai. I’ve now been 7 times.

This weekend’s most recent trip was different from the others because I walked all the way up the mountain to the temple at the top.

The Doi Suthep Walkers hike the trail to the temple at the top of the mountain every weekend. We met at the base of the mountain at 9am and it was already terribly hot. I thought it was supposed to start cooling off in November. Not so much.

I can walk forever if the ground is flat. Up is hard. Up is really hard.

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About half way to the top it was time to stop for a bit to catch our breath and reapply bug spray. It’s so hot that I’m pretty sure all of the bug spray has melted off, or has been completely absorbed into my skin. This time I used all-natural, deet free. But, after 6 months should I start to worry about the amount of deet seeping into my pores and breathed in. Every time I spray and feel it in my lungs because of accidental inhalation, I say to myself, “at least now my insides are protected from bug bits and dengue.”Does prolonged exposure to deet lead to strange mutations? I’d choose glowing in the dark over getting dengue fever any day.

We didn’t just stop to reapply bug spray. Before reaching THE temple on top of Doi Suthep mountain, you reach another, smaller temple. It’s called Wat Palad. It’s a bit more secluded and jungle-y.

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According to our hike leader (who does this every week, and also sometimes runs up the mountain), this was the easy part. The rest of the way up is a little harder. According to this guys, if you get this far you can totally do the rest. Ha. There was a bit there where I thought I wouldn’t make it. But, here’s the thing about hiking through the jungle: At some point you don’t have a choice. There is nowhere to go but forwards. The only way out is to keep going. So that is what you do.

It was worth it. I got to the top. It really is a beautiful view from up there. I’ve seen it 7 times, and it still doesn’t disappoint. You can see the whole city from up there. I’m proud of myself. I feel accomplished. 6 1/2 km up a mountain and it’s only noon.

After a well-deserved smoothie, we opted to take a red taxi back down. Maybe next time we’ll hike both ways (but probably not, who am I kidding).

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Loy Krathong

The name of this holiday literally translates to “float a basket”. And that is what I did. There are a few different ideas about what the festival celebrates. Most say the festival comes from an ancient ritual of paying respect to the water spirits. In addition to that you cast a krathong into the river to make a wish or cast away your sins or evil spirits.

There is a similar tradition in Judaism, called Tashlich. It takes place between Rosh Hashana (the new year), and Yom Kippur (the day of repentance). The tradition says to go to a body of water and cast away your sins by symbolically throwing bread into the water. There are a lot of variations on this tradition, but as I was casting my krathong made of bread, the similarities struck me. I always really liked the tradition of Tashlich.

In Thailand, Loy Krathon is most commonly associated with those big lanterns that people set into the sky. We’ve all seen the pictures online: smiling faces holding their big white lanterns with a candle inside, while they fill with air. It is a truly beautiful and magical site. However, Thailand is slowly trying to do away with this aspect of the festival celebrations. Not surprisingly, thousands of lanterns with fire in them floating into the sky is bad for the environment. It also often leads to property damage.

We got our krathongs at the supermarket. They are made of bread and are dyed bright colors. Krathongs are often made of banana leaves and flowers. I also saw some made of brightly colored ice cream cones, arranged to look like flowers. There is a big effort now to avoid Styrofoam krathongs since they are not biodegradable and are bad for the environment. The krathong also comes with 3 sticks of incense and a candle. Apparently 3 is exactly the right number of incense because 1 or 2 is bad luck and 4 is just overkill.

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Along with hundreds of other people, we celebrated at a bar on the river. We saw lanterns in the sky from all over the city. They looked like stars heading home.

After setting my krathong in the river while simultaneously trying to avoid getting pushed off the dock by the masses, I watched a woman launch a lantern into the sky from the iron bridge. Then I watched the lantern get stuck at the top of the bridge. Then I watched the woman, in a maxi dress, climb up the bridge to try to set her lantern free. She gave up when hot wax started spilling out of the lantern, at which point another bystander climbed up. The whole crowd cheered when the lantern finally sailed into the sky.

Amazingly I only saw 1 tree come dangerously close to getting set on fire.

Loy Krathong should be celebrated in April near Songkran. The tradition at Songkran is to have one big, city-wide water fight. It seems ideal to have the holiday with giant floating lanterns of fire fall near the water fight holiday. This way there are more people walking around equipped to put out accidental fires.

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Greetings from the Roof of Thailand!

Doi Intahnon is the tallest mountain in Thailand. It’s known as “the roof of Thailand,” and it’s only about 2 hours outside Chiang Mai.

Luckily Nina has a car, which makes short trips like this a piece of cake. Well…almost. It’s an old car and it works so hard to carry us all over town. Driving up the tallest mountain in Thailand would take a lot out of any car. We are really, truly amazed that we actually made it to the top of the mountain, and all the way back to Chiang Mai, and the car is still alive. It was a close call though. There was a second there where the car almost stalled on the way up, and the engine was smoking a bit when we stopped at the top. Then on the way home we were smoking a bit again. A very nice man at a roadside restaurant cooled down the car with his hose. And probably laughed at us a bit in Thai.

The mountain is part of Doi Inthanon National Park. On the road to the summit there are 2 chedis, or pagodas. They were built to honor the king and queen on their 60th birthdays. The queen’s is purple. There is a huge purple pagoda on top of the tallest mountain in Thailand. I LOVE it. The view from there is absolutely amazing. You can see forever. There are more shades of green than I ever thought possible.

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Here is my favorite thing about climbing to the tops of things: the light. You can see the light peak through the clouds and make shapes on the land. You can watch the light change as the clouds move. Once, when I went to the top of Doi Suthep, I saw rain falling in the distance. When you are standing in the rain it seems to go on forever. Rarely can you see the edge of the rain cloud, where the rain stops and the sun starts. When you are on top of a mountain, the rain cloud is an isolated event, and you can see the sunshine all around it.

For a surprisingly reasonable fee you can pitch a tent and spend the night in the park. So that is what we did. I think it cost just $10 per person for a tent, sleeping bag, mattress, and pillow. I still remember how to pitch a tent! We played cards, drank boxed wine, and made faces at a little girl at a roadside restaurant.

In the morning we closed up our tent and went in search of waterfalls. Thailand has no shortage of waterfalls. Rather than doing a traditional hike, we decided to explore a few waterfalls on our way back down the mountain. The car was grateful I think. The first waterfall we stopped at was pretty packed. For good reason though, it’s beautiful. What is it about waterfalls? They are literally just a place where water falls on its way down from a mountain. Yet, they are always stunning, always popular. The second one we stopped at had a sign saying it was the most popular waterfall in the park. We were pretty much the only ones there.

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I love how easy it is to get out of the city and find nature (if you have transportation). The jungle is as close to Chiang Mai, as my parents’ house from Manhattan. It’s pretty great.

This is Where Screen Savers Come From

In the mountains outside Chiang Mai there are more shades of green than words can describe. The same is true of the blues of the sea.

My brother, Max, came to Thailand for two weeks so we visited parts of Thailand I hadn’t seen yet. Neither of us are really beach people, but it’s Thailand. Gotta see what all the hype is about.

We started in Phuket, Thailand’s biggest island. I spoiled Max for his first ever hostel stay. Lub d Phuket Patong was brand new when we were there and really, really nice. The next few hostels we stayed in were more true to the backpacker experience.

If you’re going to spend the day at the beach (and you should, the Andaman Sea is amazing), there is a key Thai phrase you should know: may-ow-ka (or krap if you’re a boy). It means “I don’t want it.” There seemed to be more people on the beach selling stuff than people to sell to.

The area of Phuket we stayed in is called Patong. Here is what the Lonely Planet guide had to say about Patong: “Sun-scorched Russians in bad knock-off t-shirts, an overwhelming disregard for managed development and a knack for turning mid-life crisis into a full-scale industry make Patong rampant with unintentional comedy. But for all the concrete, silicon and moral bending, there’s something honest about this place. Patong is a free-for-all. Anything from a Starbucks venti latte to, ahem, companions for the evening, is available for the right price. And while that’s true of dozens of other destinations, Patong doesn’t try to hide it.”

After witnessing all of that we were off to two smaller islands called Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta.

Got off the ferry in Koh Phi Phi. Guys, this is actually where screen savers are born. You know, the picture of the too blue water that matches the too blue sky, with a perfectly green mountain in the background. Found it.

Before heading up to the viewpoint on Koh Phi Phi I got a mango smoothie. When we got to the top, which was totally worth the schlep, there were some monkeys hanging out. One came right up to me, stood up on her hind legs, and grabbed the smoothie out of my hands. I guess I was done.

It’s low season in Thailand, aka green season. Rainy season makes everything green. Green season made Koh Lanta a little too quiet. But then I stepped onto the beach, at sunset, and there was no one else there. And in that moment everything was perfect.

There are so so so so many more Thai islands to see. So many more beautiful (aka perfect) beaches, and not just in Thailand, but all over Southeast Asia. So much pretty, not enough time or money!

A Slice of Pai

Cheesy title I know, and I didn’t even see any pie in Pai. There were shroom shakes though. Yes, you read that right. No I did not partake.

I spent the week in Pai, a small town a bit north of Chiang Mai. Growing up when we went on family road trips on winding roads, my dad would exaggerate the curves to make us laugh and my mom freak out. The road to Pai makes those trip look like straight, boring roads. Not so good for the girl with a hangover sitting next to me on the bus.

Pai has a few cool things to see and do, but what makes it a really interesting destination is the people watching. Pai was a nothing special little town, then it became a hippie haven. Then the backpackers found out.
Close your eyes (well maybe finish reading the paragraph first). What picture comes to mind when I say these words: Thailand, young, white, backpacker, barefeet, dreadlocks, hippie. Got an image? That is what Pai looks like.

There are apparently more backpackers and tourists in Pai than locals. In an age of travelers wanting to seek out the road less traveled, this does not seem to deter people from coming.

Everyone and everything is really really chill. You come here to just hang out.

There are a few cool sites to see in and around Pai. Pai canyon is beautiful and has a view that goes on for days. Itty bitty paths with sheer drops take you around the perimeter.
There are some waterfalls and hot springs. The really unique spot to see is the landsplit. Apparently a farmer woke up to a giant crack in his land. Like a sink hole helped along by an earthquake or two. Since he couldn’t farm on that land anymore, he’s opened it up to tourists. And they come! He told me 100 people had been to see him the day I was there. For a small donation the owner lets you wander and stuff you full of snacks and juice from his farm. He’ also one of the friendliest people I have ever met.

The other big thing to do when you go to Pai is learn how to ride a motorbike. It is much easier to see Pai and its environs via motorbike. However, I am not a great rider of bikes without motors and I am no stranger to tripping over my own fee on flat road. So, while I had big plans to be adventurous during my time in Thailand, I chickened out. A friend is a solid motorbike-er so I hopped on the back and she drove. Maybe next time I will bring some knee and elbow pads and give it a shot.

I spent a week in Pai, which felt like enough time to see the sites and do some quality chilling and reading. Some people seem to get stuck in Pai and spend months. That might be too much chill for this New Yorker.

My Last First Day at Elephant Nature Park

Sorry in advance, this one is gonna be long. But the next one will be all photos!

This is week 5. I’ve spent a month of my life here. With the humongous bugs. And the really loud geckos. And the even louder cicadas. And the mushy vegetarian food. And the rain. So much rain. And the majestic elephants. And the playful and sometimes crazy dogs. And the water buffalo, who are strange.

For every two-week program we spend one week at Elephant Nature Park. It’s outside Chiang Mai. I have no idea where. I should look at a map.

Elephant Nature Park is a project of the Save Elephant Foundation, started by Lek Chailert. The aim is to provide a sanctuary for elephants rescued from trekking, illegal logging, and performing. Elephant Nature Park is like a beautiful retirement home for elephants.

There is a lot I want to say about the cruelty faced by elephants at the hands of humans, but not here. Just, think twice before signing up for an elephant-riding excursion while you are traveling. Elephants are not pack animals. Those huge metal chairs plus you, equals a very heavy load for an elephant. Many mahouts, or elephant trainers, use hooks and sharp things to keep their elephants in line. Many tourist operations do not give their elephants adequate food and rest during the day.

I really just want to share some entertaining anecdotes about my five weeks at this amazing place called Elephant Nature Park.

Dok Rak is the littlest elephant here. He is three months old. Until now he has been staying in a separate enclosure with his mommy, big sister, and nanny. Last week they started letting him out a little. I missed it the first time, but they did it again!

They let him and his family out for a little but so he can start getting acclimated. We got to watch. We stood on the platform and watched the adorable little man, with his adorable little everything, frolic. One of his nannies, Fa Sai, decided the abundant supply of watermelon was not good enough so she climbed up on the railing of the platform with her two front legs to grab at some branches and vines. For a minute there it looked like she was gonna come join us on the platform.

We got so close to little Dok Rak. Got a good view of his itty-bitty ears, and his itty-bitty trunk, and his itty-bitty tail, and his itty-bitty feet.

Sometimes Dok Rak squeezes through the bars of his enclosure. I think just ‘cause he can. One of these days he is going to get stuck.

Also he waddles when he runs.

Dok Rak was nibbling on his sister’s tail. She kicked him.

We watched little Navaan, one of the younger elephants play with some tire swings. He loves them.

One day we were driving around in the back of a pick up truck, cleaning up the park. Navaan decided he wanted to come with us. So we had a young elephant running after our pickup truck.

One day we went over to see a group of elephants. They were grumbling and thumping their trunks on the ground. The baby that they are the nannies for swam to the other side of the river without them. Since they are old and the river was really high and fast, they could not follow. He didn’t care and went without them. He was frolicking and having a great time. Finally he cam back to the riverbank to wave hello so his nannies would know he was ok. Then he went back to frolicking.

Week one I feel in some elephant poo. Week two an elephant called Kabu farted on me.

It’s rainy season in the jungle. It rains a lot. A lot a lot. Every day, a lot. The rain is so loud. When all of the day visitors leave and the elephants are in their enclosure and it’s just me on the sky walk, the rain and the thunder over the mountains in the distance are the only sounds. And the thunder rolls on for what seems like forever. It’s beautiful and there are a zillion different shades of green. Then the cicadas start up. They sound like a chainsaw.

Lucky, Mae Boon Ma, and Mae Bua Loy. They are best friends. One day something irritated one of them and the other two went over to gossip about it. Then they peed in unison. #friendshipgoals. It was like three girlfriends going to the ladies room to gossip.

The bugs in Thailand are so big and intense that I have started a series on Instagram. I haven’t been eaten yet, but give it time.

When hundreds of dogs get to roam free all the time, hijinks ensue. All of the humans have a favorite dog, Memphis. Memphis likes to tag along on chores sometimes. When he’s not getting almost hit by a truck, he’s defending us against the other dogs. We’ll be hanging out and he’ll be hanging out. Then some other dogs will come over and fight in our vicinity. And Memphis will start barking at them and then at us. Here is my interpretation of their interaction:
Memphis to the other dogs: Guys stop embarrassing me in front of my new human                friends!
Other dogs: Memphis, we don’t care, we like barking. The humans will love us and                  play with us later anyway.
Memphis to us: Ugh, can you believe this?! They are so ridiculous!
I’m pretty sure Memphis is a little senile.

 

 

 

 

 

A Thai Massage

Ok, so this wasn’t my first massage. It wasn’t even my first Thai massage.

For my 20th birthday my mom and I got massages at Elizabeth Arden. I don’t remember specifics, but I don’t remember being overly impressed either. Content though.

When I was in Casablanca I went to a hammam. That experience is a story in and of itself. The massage though, was…..unpleasant. A very large woman with very corse hands rubbed me all over. I mean ALL over. And there was oil. I left feeling icky.

Everyone raves about the Thai massage. Apparently amazing. You can get a Thai massage at Elephant Nature Park. After a long day of shoveling elephant poop and running around with dogs, a massage sounds nice.

A Thai massage consists of a woman strategically poking you with thumbs of steel. She could probably kill you with her thumbs. On some level it feels good to have your muscles and joints poked/rubbed/massaged intensely for an hour. But it also hurts. I’m not sure I feel relaxed afterwards. It’s also only 150 baht, which is roughly $5 USD. So it’s hard to say no.

On my day off in Chiang Mai I went to a nice spa for a massage. After spending a week at Elephant Nature Park sick, this was going to be great. No students. Not ziplining for the fourth, yes 4th, time. I had the biggest latte in history and was ready to relax. I know it doesn’t sound like those go together, but it made me happy.

This place was really nice. Clean. Classy. I soaked my feet in lemongrass water to start. I got my own little room and laid down on a cushy mat on the floor. Still a lot of strategic and hard poking. But this time she also leaned. So a lot of poking and pressing and massaging and leaning. Like with her whole body. She leaned on my spine and my arms and my legs with her whole body. There was some stretching too which was much needed. Some of it was painful. A lot of it was painful. I think what made it relaxing was lying in the dark with my eyes closed for two hours. TWO HOURS. I went in thinking I was getting an hour long massage and when I came out two hours had passed. My massage ended with a braid. That seems to be a thing. When your massage is over they braid your hair. I also got mango sticky rice!

Overall a good experience.

Downside 1: This massage experience has ruined me for future massages at Elephant Nature Park. This one was so so clean. Not sure I could do it now at Elephant Nature Park where everything is a little dirty all the time. Those mats you lay on, I hate putting my face there on the dirty, slightly damp (because everything here is slightly damp) mat.

Downside 2: I am now really sore. Is a massage supposed to make you sore? I feel like I hiked a mountain. I’m doing that in 2 days (again). I was really hoping to feel refreshed.

My hair looks nice though.