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From Chiang Mai to Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 27 June 2011

We left Chiang Mai early on Tuesday after encountering a bit of a runaround at the airport. We arrived at the domestic terminal, since our first flight was a Thai Airways jet back to Bangkok to connect to a Qatar Airways flight to Hanoi. But we were told that since our ultimate destination was international, we had to hoof it over to the international terminal. After a few more escalators and checkpoints, our bags were successfully checked to Hanoi and we were comfortably borrowing Wi-Fi from an airport coffee shop.

The food on each of our flights was actually quite delicious. Both airlines are well-known for their in-flight service, and they didn’t fall short. Thai Airways gave us a phenomenal croissant with some kind of curry confection inside, along with a peanut butter cookie and a selection of coffee and juice.

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We had been given special stickers in Chiang Mai, and we were instructed to wear them on our shirts to identify us as transit passengers. Sure enough, they came in handy when we were led through the Bangkok airport to a security checkpoint before being left on our own to hike all the way across the several terminals, through the most upscale duty-free selection I have ever seen, to the Qatar Airways transfer desk, where we were given our second boarding passes. Our second flight was equally nice, with hot chicken sandwich wraps and a full selection of beverages.

We were met at the Hanoi airport by our hotel, and the difference between Thailand and Vietnam’s development level became immediately obvious as we left the airport and immediately began driving through rice patty after rice patty, punctuated only by dilapidated buildings. After settling into the very nice Maison D’Hanoi in central Hanoi, we headed out onto the city’s streets for a uniquely Vietnamese experience: bia hoi, or fresh beer, on a street corner. This local concoction is made every day and sold all over the city to local regulars and unsuspecting tourists for about 25 cents a glass.

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We were only able to make it to the beer stand thanks to the advice of a friend, who warned us about the insane traffic in Vietnam. And we thought traffic in Thailand was tough! In Hanoi, where 90 percent of the traffic is motorcycles, you have to just look straight ahead while crossing the street. No looking both ways — there will never be a moment when the road is clear. Instead, you have to ignore the dozens of oncoming motorcycles, trusting that they will swerve to avoid you, and walk steadily but slowly across the street. It was absolutely as terrifying as it sounds, and we are lucky to have made it out of Hanoi alive.

After our drinks, we headed to 69 Restaurant, widely reviewed as one of Hanoi’s best restaurants for authentic Vietnamese food. We started with fresh spring rolls and a Vietnamese chicken salad. We were almost taken aback by the spring rolls, which were very different from what we’d been having in Thailand, though equally different and very similar to the best Vietnamese food I’ve had back home. The salad was equally great, though again, it was very different from Thai salads. I think both of our taste buds were in shock to have a full meal in which no item was numbingly spicy.

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I had my favorite Vietnamese entree from restaurants in the U.S. for the main course: bún chả, or pork on vermicelli noodles and greens in sauce. Emmy opted for a similar dish but with fish, complete with veggie accompaniments and served over a charcoal fire to keep it sizzling hot. Because we were seated directly under a high-powered fan, the ash started getting blown at us, and we had to switch sides of the table.

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IMG_2462The dishes were excellent. They made a great change from Thai cuisine and a wonderful introduction to Vietnamese cooking. We were seated next to another table of American travelers, recent Penn grads who are also documenting their travels around Southeast Asia in a format you’ll enjoy reading. After dinner, we grabbed a quick drink at a pub recommended by one of our guidebooks, and spotted a great sign. We headed back to our hotel on the early side, exhausted from our travels and looking forward to starting early to hit Hanoi’s sights.

Reflections on historical memory: Chiang Mai

Written by Chaz on 26 June 2011

Chiang Mai was very different from Bangkok, and not just in its northern food. The differences became apparent the moment we landed and our hotel picked us up. The ride from the airport to the hotel did not feature any traffic, and took about five minutes, a nice change from the 45-minute stop-and-go trip we had just had in Bangkok. This proved an apt symbol of the differences between the two cities. Though the drivers were no less aggressive or insane, Chiang Mai was much smaller and more parochial. As a result, it was much easier for us to get around, especially compared to Bangkok.

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But oddly, in central Chiang Mai, the ratio of Westerners to natives was much higher than in central Bangkok. Chiang Mai is apparently an expat center, which was surprising and a little unsettling. Here, deep in the hills, 370 miles from Bangkok, how did a thriving expat community develop? The concentration was especially stark at trivia night at U.N. Irish Pub, which was in English and didn’t seem to have a single Thai contestant. There is apparently also a push to make Chiang Mai a conference destination in southeast Asia, which was evident at our rather large, corporate-feeling hotel.

As a result of this community, as well as the strong tourist trade, Chiang Mai had something of a Disney World feeling to it. Nearly every business in the city, including our cooking school, every restaurant we went to, the many bars around town, the night bazaar, and even the wine cart we enjoyed, is predicated on the influx of dollars from Europe and America. The string of go-go bars near our hotel was not fueled by locals needing to blow off some steam.

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This made it a little harder for us to explore northern Thai cuisine, since most visitors don’t want it, preferring the Thai food they know from ethnic restaurants back home. Of course, we still managed to find it (and we ended up concurring with the rest of our tourist companions in our preferences), but its presence was much more muted than I would have expected.

Our trips outside Chiang Mai gave me much better insight into life in most of Thailand, outside its large cities. In Chiang Mai’s case, unlike sprawling Bangkok, we barely needed to leave the city limits to find ourselves in an extremely rural, underdeveloped area. As we wound our way through the mountains around Chiang Mai, we passed through areas formerly dominated by the opium trade, which has been all but eradicated by a program run by the central government to sponsor the growing of less socially harmful crops. Eating culture in the hills didn’t seem too disparate from that in the cities — we saw many of the same street-side restaurants made of plastic chairs and a wok.

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Northern Thailand was very different than Bangkok in pace and scale, but many of the same elements remained. Delicious food still thrust itself at us, sometimes literally, at every street corner. But, especially in Chiang Mai, I felt the sense of needing to escape the tourist influence whenever possible. I never felt that way in Bangkok, where it was much easier to do without even trying.

To market, to market

Written by Emmy on 24 June 2011

My favorite thing to do in a new city is just to walk around. Observing the people, hearing the language and taking in all the sights and smells is a perfect way to get a sense of the the culture, the city and the people living in it. Throughout our trip, we have done quite a bit of walking. We have the blisters — and one pair of broken shoes — to prove it. But seeing the streets has been amazing, especially since many of them are covered in streetside markets.

We market-hopped extensively in Bangkok, and I was excited to see how the frenzied Thai streets looked up north. Our first visit was to Chiang Mai’s Warorot Market. The narrow alleyways packed with everything from raw meat to t-shirts to spools of ribbon were not dissimilar from many of the anonymous street markets we saw in Bangkok. Street signs are not so popular in Thailand. It was not uncommon for us to have no idea where we were, and though Chiang Mai and Warorot were more manageable than Bangkok, we would probably never have made it out of the maze of shops and tuk-tuks were it not for our trusty map.

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In Chiang Mai, the guidebooks all rave about the Night Bazaar. Every night, starting at about 6 p.m., merchants of every kind set up stalls inside a few freestanding buildings, as well as throughout the surrounding streets and alleyways. Hawking jewelry, scarves, housewares, food and every other possible item you could think of, they beckon to all passersby. Our hotel in Chiang Mai was just blocks from the Night Bazaar, and I had sort of assumed when we picked it that we would wind up walking through the market to go everywhere. As it turns out, the market was filled with more tourist junk than real items, and it was disorganized mayhem, not quite the organized chaos of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market.

Nancy Chandler’s rendition of Chiang Mai’s night bazaar

On Sundays, everything is different. One of Chiang Mai’s most motorcycle-and-tuk-tuk-congested streets is shut down to traffic and from 4 p.m. until midnight, merchants line the sidewalks. The Sunday Walking Market, as it is known, is frequented by as many locals as tourists. Many of the stalls are staffed by representatives of retail stores, peddling their merchandise in a more visible arena. The stalls also seemed to have a more thematic organization, with jewelry in one place, pillows and posters down a particular side street, and Buddha statues down another. And of course, there’s a food court or two.

The market stretches for countless blocks and for several hours. After a little while, Chaz left to get a massage and I continued perusing the market stalls. This marked one of the first times on our trip we separated. In Bangkok, the logistics of relocating each other seemed too daunting. Even in smaller Chiang Mai, we had a very precise meeting place and contingency plan. That left me with over an hour to take in all that the colorful Walking Market had to offer.

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Walking through the market by myself, I observed an insane number of jewels and scarves. Like I learned in Hong Kong at the jade market, few items are what their sellers profess them to be. The jade is usually just green plastic and Thai silk is rarely more than shiny cotton. The mantra of “what you see is what you get” is an appropriate mindset for the marketplace. Though I picked up a shirt (discounted because I am “pretty lady”) and a Hello Kitty item or two, the focus of my market-going was less on shopping and more on seeing.

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The market was filled with performers, including an official stage with little Thai girls dressed in outfits remarkably similar to those I wore in my four-year-old tap-dancing performances. What was somewhat disturbing though were the young children playing musical instruments among the shops. These kids were working for tips, and it was hard to discern whether they had been put up to it by their parents and whether they would ever see the money. With all the fun and festivity of Thailand, it was at moments easy to forget the realities of the developing nation we were in, but these kids were a definite reminder.

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The other markets we visited in Chiang Mai were less official. Among them was the Eastern Fruits Festival, a series of temporary tents housing dragonfruit, durian and the other exotic specialties of the region. Because it was smack in the middle of the city, we cut through the festival to walk elsewhere during the daytime, when sellers were just setting up their produce, and at night, when traditional Thai dancers came out to shake their stuff.

One morning, as we paused in front of a pad thai saleswoman so I could discretely take her picture (it never gets old), a group of schoolgirls stopped us. Having been warned so many times about marketplace scams — and narrowly avoiding a couple of them — we had a pretty heightened level of skepticism about any natives who approached us, but the girls seemed totally innocent and authentic. Armed with a tape recorder and a list of questions, they told us that they were students of English and they wanted to know where we were from and what we thought of Chiang Mai, among other things. The whole encounter reminded me of an almost identical interview I participated in for English students in Barcelona. (Both times I told the natives I thought their food was delicious.) At the end of our Thai interview, the girls asked to take a picture with us and we agreed — as long as we could have our own copy too.

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Our final notable street encounter took place on the walk back to our hotel on our final night in Chiang Mai. A quiet nondescript street by day, the road linking our hotel to “downtown” Chiang Mai took a darker turn at night. Go-go bars lined the entire walk, and each seemed to be identical to the next: staffed by young Thai girls and frequented by older Western men. The whole thing was a little unsettling. But in the midst of the mayhem was a cute little stall that we passed most nights, advertising cheap, homemade wine by the glass. To his credit, Chaz suggested we stop there one of the first nights, but it wasn’t until the last night, when we were walking back to the hotel and noticed a young Western couple sipping their wine, that I finally agreed to stop.

The pair of Canadians was vacationing in Thailand before beginning the school year as teachers in Bangladesh. The girl, Kat, had taught for a year in Chiang Mai previously and used to visit the wine stall regularly. Run by a Thai couple, the stand offers strawberry, ginseng, lychee and longan wine, all of which are on the sweet side. We sampled three of the four flavors — the longan was my favorite — but Kat warned that the wines tend to vary from bottle to bottle.

The proprietors took our photo and took down our names, a tradition repeated with all of the stall’s customers. So once again, we decided it would be only appropriate to take away keepsake photos of our own.

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We also took away a keepsake bottle, but because of our concerns about continuing to travel with it, it had to be consumed.

Getting behind the wheel

Written by Chaz on 24 June 2011

We had always planned to do a couple day trips using Chiang Mai as a base. So after getting a recommendation from one of our guidebooks for a car rental company and scoping out their website, I decided I was brave enough to take control of a moving vehicle in the insane Thai traffic. Not only are drivers aggressive, but they drive on what I would call the wrong side of the road. And though it was touch and go at first, I quickly adjusted, and before too long, we were zooming through the Thai countryside. Fortunately, we had gotten a GPS from the car rental company, so a nice British woman was giving me directions.

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We began our first day with the car, last Saturday, with a trip to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple atop a mountain in a national park near Chiang Mai.

“What could possibly go wrong?”, I jokingly asked. Little did we know that it’s traditional for the freshmen at local high schools to march up the winding road to the temple at the start of each summer. As a result, we literally found ourselves driving through thousands and thousands of schoolchildren. This did not seem to concern most of them.

(In case you’re wondering what the strange background music in those videos is, it’s from the only CD we had with us — the smooth-jazzified versions of American pop songs that we bought in the Bangkok street market.)

The temple itself, once we finally made it to the top of the road and then up a long, crowded set of stairs, was actually beautiful. Unfortunately, it was too foggy for a view back down to Chiang Mai.

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From Doi Suthep, we headed north to the tiny town of Chiang Dao, about 75 kilometers from Chiang Mai. Before we knew it, the city had faded away completely, and we found ourselves in the beautiful Thai countryside.

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After a bit of searching around the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves at the Chiang Dao Nest, an adorable little restaurant-hotel with little bungalows. The Nest seemed to rise out of the woods like an oasis of delicious food.

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The Nest had a creative menu of mostly Western food, which was totally incongruous with its surroundings, and Emmy ordered a curry chicken salad with cashew, one of her favorites from a Rhode Island restaurant. I ordered one of their two Thai items, the “ka-pow!” stir-fry. Emmy enjoyed her salad, though the chicken was warm, which wasn’t quite how salads of that kind are made back home. My stir-fry was fantastic, though I did get mocked by the waitress for the sweating produced by the combination of the high heat and extreme spice.

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After lunch, we explored the Chiang Dao Cave, which was actually quite deep and reminded me of Carlsbad Caverns on a smaller scale. (Light conditions in the cave did not permit beautiful photography.) After running from the cave to the car through a mid-afternoon monsoon, we set off back toward Chiang Mai, planning to turn off toward the mountain town of Samoeng. After a quick stop at the Four Seasons Resort, located outside of Chiang Mai, we found ourselves winding our way into the hills. The roads through the mountains were incredibly beautiful, rivaling some of the nicest I’ve seen in the U.S.

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We were guided along our drive by helpful Thai roadsigns that warned us of hazards such as elephants and deer that run out of the forest because burning trees are falling on them.

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Our second trip out of Chiang Mai, on Monday, took us south to Lamphun and Lampang, two fairly nondescript Thai towns. Lamphun was much closer, and not long after setting out from Chiang Mai, we arrived at the town’s largest temple.

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We took a detour on the way from Lamphun to Lampang to stop at Wat Phra Phut Ta Bat Tak Pah, a huge temple complex that had one temple right off the road, a sprawling monastery behind it, and a second enormous temple up at the top of a mountain, up about a thousand steps. Needless to say, by the time we reached the second temple, we were winded and sweaty.

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As we got close to the top, we realized that we had neglected to bring any water with us, since we hadn’t quite realized the effort we were going to have to put in to reach this temple. Fortunately, capitalism came in quite handy, for what did we find at the top of the huge staircase, next to this temple in middle of nowhere Thailand? A convenience store, of course.

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The drive to Lampang, which was significantly further away from Chiang Mai, took us through a very rural area on an extremely impressive highway (the GPS called it “Super Highway”) through a mountain pass. It was much nicer than several highways I’ve had the pleasure of driving on back home, and the scenery was beautiful, too.

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When we arrived in Lampang, we realized that we really hadn’t had a reason to go there in the first place. The only sights we knew of were more temples, and on our last of thirteen days in Thailand, we had really had enough temples. We were also both starving and more than a little turned around in this unfamiliar town, so we basically wandered the streets until we found Riverside Restaurant, where we had a more-or-less mediocre Thai lunch of fish salad with mango sauce, chicken with basil and chili, and pad thai — our last in Thailand.

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The drive back to Chiang Mai was totally smooth. I’m really glad we got out into the country, and especially that we chose to do it in a car, which gave us flexibility to stop wherever we wanted and explore whatever struck our fancy. Some of the scenery we saw, especially, sticks with me as one of the most memorable things about our time in Thailand.

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Vegging out

Written by Emmy on 23 June 2011

Our trips to the markets and street stalls of Southeast Asia have introduced us to some very interesting meat products, known and unknown. Mysteriously shaped pieces of what looks like meat appear in salads and noodle dishes. In Hong Kong, most items categorized as “vegetable” on restaurant menus actually included stir-fried pork or other extras.

Despite their seemingly carnivorous nature, the Thai people are incredibly respectful of vegetarianism. In the food markets, stalls bearing a yellow flag strictly observe vegetarian practices and in the month of October, many restaurants reportedly turn vegetarian for a few weeks and fly the yellow banner to prove it. The practice builds upon the abundance of noodles and fresh vegetables in the Thai marketplace, as well as the rich Buddhist tradition.

In Chiang Mai, we had lunch at two recommended vegetarian cafes. The first, Taste of Heaven, which we visited on Friday, also ran a vegetarian cooking school. Flyers around the restaurant advertised the health benefits of vegetarianism, as well as the ethical and religious reasons one might choose such a lifestyle.

We started with fresh spring rolls and samosas. The spring rolls had good textural contrast, with fresh tofu to balance the cabbage and carrots. The curried vegetables inside the samosas tasted of the spices usually found in Indian food, but the dipping sauce of rice vinegar, carrots and onions gave the samosas a distinctly Thai flavor.

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We also sampled the Taste of Heaven salad, which was filled with crunchy vegetables, nuts, crispy pieces of tofu and other assorted goodies, topped with a tangy spicy dressing. It was delicious.

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We also tried two different curries, a yellow and a red. Each was spicy and filled with tofu and the many vegetables we had learned about in cooking school.

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On Sunday, we checked out another of Chiang Mai’s vegetarian restaurants. AUM Restaurant feels a bit more like a hippie enclave, with a secondhand bookstore attached. (For some reason, Chiang Mai has more secondhand English bookstores than any city I have ever been in.) Despite its location on one of CM’s busiest roads, AUM definitely has a peaceful vibe.You must remove your shoes in order to enter the main part of the bookshop.

We ordered the khao soi, Chiang Mai’s signature dish, which we had already come to love. Here it was still served with veggie condiments, spicy sauce and crispy noodles, but with tofu and extra veggies in lieu of the usual braised chicken. The resulting dish had just as much flavor and kick as the chicken-filled version.

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We also had a papaya salad. Like the others we have ordered throughout Thailand, this one was mind-numblingly spicy. It took us each two bottles of water and a couple bites of plain lettuce to erase the tingling sensation on our tongues. We also ordered the fresh spring rolls, which had a distinctly different flavor than the ones we ate at Taste from Heaven. In AUM’s rendition, the crunchy carrots and cabbage were complemented by sweet beets and topped by a variety of seeds. Using beets rather than tofu created more of a flavor explosion, completing making up for the lack of meat or seafood.

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I have often thought that were it not for the social inconveniences of places like restaurants that I could easily become a vegetarian. Who would have thought that it would be easier to do that in Thailand?

The cuisine of the north

Written by Chaz on 23 June 2011

During our time in Chiang Mai, we explored all of the city’s major tourist sights. This meant we saw quite a few temples, known as wats. After our time in Bangkok, Thai temples started to get a little bit repetitive. I can sum up what we saw with a few pictures:

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Multiply that a few times and add in the hot sun, and that was basically our wat-going experience in Chiang Mai. Very beautiful and historic, but basically an interlude between meals, which were obviously the main attraction of our time in Thailand.

We had two delicious northern dinners in Chiang Mai, as well as two amazing vegetarian meals that Emmy will write about soon. There weren’t very many upscale restaurants in Chiang Mai, which, on the whole, was much more parochial than Bangkok despite a very visible presence of Western tourists and expats. But Adit, of interview fame, had recommended that we check out Ginger Kafe for its unique Eat Me–esque take on northern Thai food. It turned out to be a great meal, and we ended up going twice after a restaurant that we tried to go to another night turned out to have closed.

We started with an appetizer platter that featured our favorite betel-leaf snack and some kind of deep-fried leaf. We also had a phenomenal papaya salad with soft-shell crab. It was super spicy, but really tasty and flavorful.

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We moved on to two northern dishes for our entrees. Khao soi is a curry with cooked noodles in a spicy broth made from coconut milk, usually served with chicken and topped with fried egg noodles. Originally Burmese, it’s served widely in northern Thailand, especially as street food. We also had a dry red curry, much less soupy that a traditional red curry.

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I really enjoyed khao soi. It was one of the few dishes in Thailand that’s customarily eaten with chopsticks, so it made a nice change as well as a good transition to our time in Vietnam. Most other curries that I’ve had aren’t served on noodles, and the crunch of the egg noodles gave the dish a very different texture than many others. Though the curry came with rice, it hardly needed it. The meat was full of flavor on its own, and the sauce was thick enough that it didn’t need another solid to act as a vehicle.

Ginger Kafe was also a really fun place to have dinner. When we walked in, we were asked whether we were there to eat or to shop in their boutique, then asked whether we wanted to sit at a table or on a sofa. We were boring and opted for a table, but it still made a neat atmosphere.

Our other distinctively northern experience was at Huen Phen, a restaurant in central Chiang Mai that serves khao soi on the street at lunch and a full northern menu in an ornately decorated house at dinner. We had a whole hodgepodge of items, thanks to the restaurant’s relatively low prices: a vegetable and crab dip, served with vegetables for dipping; a spicy northern salad, with crispy egg noodles and unidentified meats; chicken in green beans, eggplant and a spicy northern sauce; and a northern curry, which is much soupier than a traditional one.

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The spicy northern salad was fantastic, walking a fine line as it was both refreshing and green while also having a nice kick to it. The rest of the dishes, though, let me down a little bit, making me long for more traditional Thai cuisine. The chicken dish was fairly bland compared to a normal stir-fry, and the curry was more watery than hearty.

All in all, I guess it’s not surprising that I preferred straight-up Thai food to its northern cousin, which shares a lot with its Burmese and Laotian neighbors. Thai food reflects a proud, uncolonized heritage that’s made obvious in its strong tastes and fresh, local ingredients. Northern cuisine, though still quite good, just wasn’t the same.

Quiz night in Chiang Mai

Written by Emmy on 22 June 2011

On one of our first nights in Chiang Mai, we found the city’s big expat community and channeled our inner competitive selves at quiz night at U.N. Irish Pub.

I love a good trivia contest and was very excited about our prospects for Thursday’s competition. However, we were less successful than I might have hoped. After the first two rounds, we had dropped to last place.

Here are some possible explanations as to why:

  • For one, we were the youngest people in the room (except for one table of 20-somethings, but they were far away and not that invested in the game). We also had the smallest team.
  • For the most part, everyone else appeared to be a regular, so that was working against us too. How could we compete with teams that had names like “Chardonnay Sipping Socialists”? (Our name was Absurdity Checkpoint, in case there was any confusion about that.)
  • I thought the geography category would be a strong point for us. I didn’t account for the fact that we were halfway around the world and the reality that our knowledge is a bit, well, Americentric.
  • Nearly every movie and musical artist referenced came into their prime long before we were born. Our one saving grace: What 1970s pop sensation has a palindrome for its name, and for a bonus point, which of their billboard-topping hits is ALSO a palindrome? (See below.)

  • One of the final rounds was based on a handout. Every question consisted of three definitions and we were required to provide the word that fit all three. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, you try coming up with a word that simultaneously means a compartment, reddish-brown and a long howl. (We scored a 2 out of 10 on this particular round. Even the team that jokingly named themselves “Damn the handout” beat us.)

We ended the game in last place, with less than half the points that the winning team had. But here in Chiang Mai, there is such a thing as A for effort. We were awarded the Triers’ Prize: a pitcher of beer.

Getting schooled

Written by Emmy on 22 June 2011

Our adventures in Asia have mostly revolved around food and in particular, eating it. On Thursday, we had an opportunity to turn the tables and get behind the stove.

Our visit to Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School was planned even before our flights and hotels were booked. After many successful cooking experiments in Providence, Chaz and I were very eager to learn the secrets of Thai cooking. (As previously mentioned, we once tried to make pad thai and it was a disaster. Video footage will not be released in order to preserve our dignity.)

So on Thursday morning, we were met at our hotel by the cooking school van. We picked up the rest of the group at their hotels and guesthouses and assembled at the school’s main office to meet our instructor for the day. She introduced herself as Big Mama. (Later in the day, when explaining a particular vegetable’s attributes, she explained, “It’s short and fat. Like me!”) We also met our fellow students: a girl from England who also just graduated college, a young couple from California, four women from the Netherlands and a Danish man.

IMG_1772Our day began with a trip to a local market and we were each given pieces of the shopping list, with the items and quantities written in both English and Thai. My assignments were simple: 5 limes and 8 potatoes. Chaz’s were a tad more complicated: 3 kilos of palm sugar and 20 tiger prawns.

When we arrived at the market, Big Mama toured the group around before sending us out on our own. Most of the markets we’ve visited on our trip have been absolutely insane, with merchants hawking their produce and stinky fish everywhere. The calmer market we visited with Big Mama was clearly intended more for locals than for tourists, and was packed with regulars. Big Mama took us to several stands and explained all of the ingredients we would need to find. While some items (like those I had to collect) are identical to those we use at home, others are completely foreign. For example, we had to find pea eggplant and apple eggplant. The former looks like peas and the latter like nothing I’ve ever seen. Neither tastes like the eggplant I know and love (and for the record, pea eggplant does not taste like peas either).

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Chaz got a lesson in plucking prawns from a basket and examining them for quality, as well as instructions in buying palm sugar. Palm sugar, which we came to discover is in almost all Thai dishes, is made with coconut and has a molasses-like texture to it.

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IMG_1785Armed with a trunk full of groceries, the van brought us to the cooking school’s campus, about 30 minutes outside Chiang Mai. The buildings are open and airy, and surrounded by beautiful gardens. When we arrived, a class of children was working on their rice dumplings. We were brought into a classroom for our first instruction. Big Mama had laid out the curriculum before we arrived and assuming that the market shopping would make us hungry, we would make one dish, eat it and then continue with the program. Our first item was pad see ew. One of my favorite noodle dishes, pad see ew is usually made with thick rice noodles, which Big Mama showed us how to buy and then coat with the oyster sauce that, along with soy sauce, gives pad see ew its salty flavor. Big Mama’s tossing of the noodles with Chinese kale, egg and meat seemed so effortless.

We were skeptical that ours could be as good, but it turns out that with a watchful eye and the right ingredients, pad see ew is hard to mess up too badly. We also gained our first introduction to the condiments that we had seen all over Thailand. On almost every restaurant table, we had seen a bowl of liquid with peppers in it. Big Mama taught us that this is rice vinegar, diluted with water, and filled with chilis. The mixture adds a sour, spicy flavor to whatever it is sprinkled on. In the case of pad see ew, the simple sauce adds a nice contrast to the sweet noodles.

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After devouring our noodles, we moved onto the next dish: steamed fish inside a banana leaf. Cooked in curry alongside the pea eggplant and several other new vegetables, the fish smelled so spicy it made my eyes tear while cooking it. After being violently tossed around in a wok, the fish was poured into banana leaves and folded into a little package. Again, Big Mama’s actions appeared effortless. My leaf origami required a bit more assistance. Once folded, our fish packages were left to boil and cook through.

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IMG_1848Our next dish was yellow curry, one of the spicier varieties.

The Thai Cookery School was founded by Sompon Nabnian, who achieved his fame in a Chiang Mai restaurant and several stints on Thailand’s version of Food Network. Normally, you need to be enrolled in the more expensive master class to receive his teachings, but for whatever reason, he stepped in for Big Mama for a couple of our dishes. He easily whipped up the yellow curry and had us each try it. It was incredible: spicy, but full of flavor, and not too thin (the issue I often take with curries). Following his demonstration, we headed back to our own working stations.

We used no measuring cups in the creation of our own curries, thus leading to quite a bit of variation. Though Chaz’s version was silky and orange, and mine was much chunkier and a deeper red color, both were very spicy. Along with the curry, we learned to make a dipping sauce of rice vinegar, chilies, peanuts and peppers. The spicy citrus complemented the curry beautifully. The diverse flavors made the two items seem less fiery when eaten together.

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The final dish that made up our very large lunch was chicken stir fried with cashew nuts. In the U.S., this dish is often served in a brown sauce, but the version in Thailand is much lighter, filled with green vegetables to add crunch and flavor. Thrown into the wok for barely any time at all, the trick to giving the quick dish flavor is cooking the cashews separately ahead of time.

With a plate of rice to soak up all the flavors and spices, we enjoyed our massive and delicious lunch — made even more exciting because we had cooked everything.

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Though stuffed, we powered through the afternoon snack and dessert. We prepared the dessert first, so that it would have time to chill. The dish — bananas in coconut milk — was silky and sweet, and complemented by the flavor and scent of the pandanus leaf. We don’t have this plant in the states, but apparently, vanilla extract can be used as an easy substitute. Because of preexisting biases against both banana and coconut, this was not my favorite of the dishes, but I could still appreciate its artful simplicity.

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The afternoon snack was not the most popular among the group at large, but I happened to really like it. A northern salad of shrimp, lemongrass and other leaves, it was incredibly spicy. The dressing was made, among other things, of chili jam — a strange substance that tasted like Thai barbecue sauce — and little chili peppers. We were warned not to touch anywhere near our eyes after handling the tiny peppers because severe pain could result. My rendition of the salad (left) was nowhere near as beautiful as Big Mama’s (right) but I still thought it was delicious. Insanely spicy. But delicious.

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Extremely full and with recipe books in hand, we waved goodbye and boarded the van back to downtown Chiang Mai. Cooking school was definitely one of my favorite experiences of the trip — as I could have predicted — and I couldn’t have been happier with Big Mama and the whole staff at Thai Cookery School. Next challenge: trying to replicate the recipes in my own kitchen. Yikes.

Reflections on historical memory: Bangkok

Written by Chaz on 21 June 2011

One of my mantras lately has been that all life is an expectations game. That is, we’re only really able to judge things in relation to our previously-held expectations. We can be delighted by something about which we had low expectations but disappointed by the same thing if our expectations were too high. So in thinking about Bangkok and about Thailand in general, it seems like I have to start with my expectations.

First, as I wrote before, I really didn’t have too much of a frame of reference for Thailand, so in terms of specific expectations, I didn’t have many. But broadly, I expected a developing country that’s been doing much better than many of its neighbors, aside from recent political instability. I expected a flourishing native culture, impacted by Western influence but never colonized. And, naturally, I expected to find out why people have called Thailand the “Land of Smiles.”

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All of my expectations proved reasonable, both in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and as a result, I had a terrific time in Thailand and really enjoyed the country. But, from the perspective of historical memory, there were plenty of other things we observed in the country that came as a surprise or were otherwise remarkable.

The biggest thing that struck me right away about Bangkok was what a huge city it was, both by population and area. Our hotel was at the western end of one the Skytrain’s two lines, and the city went on for miles after that. As we finally figured out once we got a good map, the city was full of different neighborhoods, all busy and worth exploring. Every day of the week, the train was packed, and as we learned the hard way, the roads are terribly congested to the point that driving is nearly futile. Taking a cab is less luxury and much more torture.

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The city’s sprawling development seems to have gotten away from it, and though bandaids like the Skytrain and river ferries have helped significantly, there will still need to be significant investment before Bangkok is easy to get around. As the New York Times wrote, if you can’t reach place on the river or the Skytrain, it’s hardly worth going at all. The problem is compounded by how difficult it is to walk even short distances, because the streets and drivers are so unfriendly to pedestrians. Such improvements will become easier as the country continues to develop, but there will need to be careful attention paid to planning as the city keeps growing.

From a food perspective, as the city has exploded in size, the native cuisine has remained intractable. From the streets to the finest hotels, Thai food is everywhere. This is a very different feeling than a place like the U.S. or even much of Europe, where “native” cuisines are common but are just one of a wide range of choices. Though both Bangkok and Chiang Mai had plenty of world cuisines all over the place, it seemed very clear in both places that globalization hasn’t yet erased or even really watered down the country’s cherished eats.

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Even so, I did also get the sense of a proud kingdom that has translated itself poorly into the modern era. At Jim Thompson’s house, we got a picture of the kingdom of Siam, a prosperous, well-run society that held its own against intruding cultures and even inspired newcomers to stay awhile. Today, after a few politically tumultuous years, Thailand will hold a national election on July 3 in which the sister of an exiled leader will run as a proxy candidate amid royalist opposition. We saw literally thousands and thousands of campaign signs all over the country with huge pictures of the candidates, but it’s unclear to what extent the election will be seen as legitimate by the Thai people and world observers. Last year’s protests appeared to call for a serious discussion of the issues, and glamour-shot posters and military crackdowns on demonstrations don’t foster that.

The monarchy’s continued influence also adds an interesting dynamic to Thai politics. Even should the election turn out fairly, it’s hard to take modern democracy 100 percent seriously in a country that posts pictures of its monarchs on every street corner. At the National Museum in Bangkok, the exhibits ended with a gushing gallery about the royal family and the great things they’ve done for the country. In a democracy, royals don’t usually get to take much credit, and propagandistic museum exhibits reflect a naive approach to making the country appear modern and productive. Though perhaps that kind of thing plays well at home, it’s unlikely to inspire confidence especially in the Western world.

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Criticisms aside, Thailand absolutely trounced my expectations. There’s construction all over the place, both from private industry and public infrastructure, and it often feels like a very developed country. Some of the roads we drove on were significantly nicer than America’s crumbling highways. Thai culture and food felt both historically rooted and rapidly developing, yielding delicious fusion food like at Eat Me and more traditional fare like at the Mandarin Oriental. Bangkok was a vibrant, lively city, and I’ll be extremely interested to visit again in a few years to see how it’s changed.

Guided by Miss Chanandoler Bong

Written by Chaz on 20 June 2011

When we first arrived in Bangkok, we were totally disoriented. The city’s sprawl, combined with the in-your-face commerce happening on the street and off, totally overwhelmed us. Thanks to our guidebooks, though, we found Nancy Chandler’s map of Bangkok, which both oriented us and gave us lots of ideas for things to do and see in the city.

Because the bookstore in which we found her Bangkok map had stocked her map for Chiang Mai right next door, we were able to arrive in the northern city with a map already in hand. Which means that, for almost two weeks now, we’ve been making jokes based our mapmaker’s last name and a scene from one of our favorite television series, Friends.

“I need to take a quick look at Chanandoler” is not an uncommon thing for us to say on the streets of Chiang Mai. “Did you remember to bring Miss Bong?”