Chiang Mai, Oh My We Ate a Lot

We are not experts on pregnant women, but the Chiang Mai night markets struck us as a place a woman with child might enjoy hanging out. You can eat for two (or three, if we’re being honest here) from the incredible array of delicious street foods, get a foot massage for less than $5 an hour, and eat lots more delicious street food during your massage (and then maybe eat again after). At least, that’s how we enjoyed spending time in Chiang Mai. Though a doctor might advise drinking fewer Singha’s when preggers, and perhaps less street food sushi.

We really enjoyed Chiang Mai. The natural scenery was a bit less impressive than we expected, but it is a most chill place to hang out for a few days. Chiang Mai offers the convenience and comfort of a real city.  There are movie theaters, international cuisine, shopping malls, bagels (!) and good WiFi.  But it doesn’t feel like a real city. The locals are friendly and nobody seems to be in a rush.  The crowd is young and international, the weather is good (at least this time of year) and it is easy to understand why so many expats now call Chiang Mai home.

We were excited to find a place with some not-terribly-sketchy sushi, and so our first night in town we tuk-tuked over to Tsunami Sushi. It was great, and reasonably priced, but when I found out later we could eat street sushi for literally 15-30 cents a piece, I maybe would have skipped it. (I don’t know if the irrational excitement I experience at being able to order a meal for $1 is as widespread as it is satisfying, but I do know that obtaining a $1 meal of sushi is the most rewarding.) Anyway, it was fun, and put us near Chiang Mai University at graduation time, so we bopped about the bars in that area with the young and newly free (or were they newly shackled?). This area (particularly Nimmanhaemin Road) is packed with coffee shops, spas, and bars, including one stop that is essentially a liquor store (Kamrai, on the west side of the street) with little tables outside, set up so that you can go in and buy a couple of beers and sit drinking them on the street. It was here that we discovered Banana Bread Beer and Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale (can you say delicious?).

We also made what was probably the best value purchase of our lives here: jackets for $1.50 a piece! We didn’t realize how cold it would get in the evenings, and as we shivered our way down the street we both did a double take at the sight of a row of jackets with a price tag of 50 Baht! Check out how sweet these are.

We may or may not have gotten into an argument over which one of ours actually was cool. They would have been worth it for the tuk-tuk ride home alone, and we wound up wearing them every night in Chiang Mai, though given our limited luggage we opted to leave them behind after those five days.

By the way, they’ve got real tricked out tuk-tuks here, which feel more like low-riders with reclining seats. We half expected them to start bouncing and blaring a little Warren G when we drove.

One of Chiang Mai’s highlights is its array of street markets.  The most famous are probably the Saturday and Sunday Walking Street markets and the nightly, um, night market.  There is also the Warorot Market, likely others we don’t know, and countless little agglomerations of food carts scattered throughout the area.

And the variety and amount of cheap street food on offer in this city is impressive. But maybe not quite as impressive as the amount of it we were able to consume. Let’s give you the breakdown, shall we? Because it’s so remarkable, nay, monumental even that it’s hard to believe it happened. (I promise, we worked out after this.)

Saturday Walking Street: Pork on a stick (10B), roast pork on rice (30B, fantastic), pad thai (40B), thai pancakes (25B insanely delicious), freshly fried quail eggs (7 for 20B). We had some kanom krok (coconut custard cups, 10B) on the walk there to wake our bellies.  The Walking Street has tons of food (beyond what we ate here, there are endless options for grass jelly, dumplings, sausages, shumai, ice cream, cupcakes and more), art, and souvenirs etc, including these awesome little hand-held sewing machines that look like staplers.

There is also a very substantial collection of food stalls just outside the Saturday Walking Street market by the south gate of the Old City wall. While dining at one of these, Alan tried to purchase beers at 7-11 but was denied due to pre-election regulations.  This happened a couple times during our stay, but was easily thwarted by patronizing smaller, local establishments that despite their lack of billions in revenue were sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of the situation: we would not be voting and so it didn’t really matter how much beer we drank.

Along the Walking Street we got half hour upper-body massages for 80B. Not the best massage I’ve ever had, but probably the cheapest. Did I say that exact same phrase when blogging about massages in Varanasi, India? Well this one was worse, and cheaper. But it’s really fun because you sit in your chair and people watch as market-goers pass by. Definitely not a zen environment as massages go, but a fun and unique one.

I tried to convince Alan to eat some fried crickets or worms. Do you see the size of this thing? His downfall was too many questions. How do you eat it? You eat the whole thing? What is it fried in? How long ago were these cooked? You know you’ve over-thought it by now, and it just ain’t happening.

Sunday Walking Street: Our mango sticky rice consumption had been gravely deficient so first thing we did upon entering the market zone was eat this dessert.  And then, bam, more street sushi!  Followed by half hour foot massages for 70B.  We ambled on to a wat’s courtyard loaded with food vendors where Alan had some grilled spicy sausage that was phenomenal and Jenni ordered lemon iced tea that turned out to be Thai iced tea, which may be more calorie-laden but is sweet and delicious.

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There are a lot of musicians (many disabled) that sit or stand in the middle of the walking street and play or sing.  We passed some girls playing Hava Nagila on the violin, but it was too crowded to fire up the circle.  After this we spent a while near the lively east gate at a courtyard bar cum ice cream shop with a talented singer playing acoustic guitar and covering popular Western songs.  I can’t figure out the name of this place, but maybe it is part of Turtle home made ice cream or next to it. Jenni got an early birthday present necklace on the street…for 200B.  Birthday presents are so much cheaper in Thailand than Brentwood!

Tempted by the 24-hour BK, instead we patronized another Turkish joint that is part of Zoe at the reggae/bar area.  Gotta show love for the peoples.  The doner kebab was so-so.

Monday night Alan ate some mystery pork or chicken on a skewer on the walk to Warorot Market followed by the night market.  Don’t worry, we’ll talk about something other than food and markets…just not yet.  We’re not sure if we exactly found Warorot Market or just the streets nearby, but here we had one of our favorite meals: spicy cold noodles with chicken.  These were outstanding, and the vendor was a young lady so on point.  Alan gets excited at jobs done right.  And while he was drinking a large Singha as we shared the noodles, this drunk older Thai lady kept trying to steal his beer.

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Do you know what’s best to wash down some spicy noodles and beer?  Fried chicken!  With all due respect to my southern relatives, this might have been the best fried chicken I’ve ever had.  Then Alan ate a Peter Luger size piece of grilled bacon (maybe even bigger), Jenni ate a donut, Alan ate a peanut caramel cake, and we both had these items that looked like tacos with sour cream but were really mini crepes with a fluff-like filling.  And then another kebab sandwich, where we concluded that Thais excel at most food but not Middle Eastern.

All that said, let’s talk a little about food.  Street food spots pop up everywhere. We stayed near a school and on weekdays there were side-by-side chicken skewer (10B each, get it covered in chili powder if you can stand the heat) and iced tea stands where students ordered from inside the fence and commoners lined up on the street. Solid. So for a person like Alan, whose biggest fear in life is probably where and when he might be able to get food next, Chiang Mai is a very safe bet.

There is also a big assemblage of food stalls outside the north gate where Alan tried some pork from the lady wearing a cowboy hat. She has managed her brand well and built a following, but there is definitely better pork elsewhere. It is less clear, however, if there is better dessert elsewhere than the fried dough bites dipped in green custard made with condensed milk and green something or other. Just watching the cook lay out and cut up strips and then his maybe eight-year-old assistant fry them up in a big wok, turning them with chopsticks, was entertaining.

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Next to the markets, the wats (temples) are probably Chiang Mai’s other biggest tourist draw. And wat a collection of wats they have! (See wat I did there?). Just wander around the city a bit and you’ll happen upon a number of them, each impressive in its own right. It is pretty neat to be bar- or food-hopping and stroll past centuries-old temples. We checked out Wat Chedi Luang with its gorgeous high ceilings and abundance of gold Buddhas. We also enjoyed the broken English signs which seem intended to warn tourists of the non-sanctioned guides who want to pickpocket you?

We also made the journey up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is a stunning temple set atop a hill a ways outside of the city. It’s a very windy road, so expect to get carsick. You get up there via a songthaew, which is a cross between a tuk-tuk, a pick-up truck and a bus. On a good day you supposedly get great views of Chiang Mai proper, but we were greeted with hazy skies. Alan also checked out Wat Pra Singh (20B) one day when Jenni was battling her stomach, which was battling the Chiang Mai street food (all I want for my birthday is to not get sick from food in Asia one more time. Pretty pretty please.). The main building was nice but he was more smitten with the rear annexes containing gorgeous murals and woodwork.

Our efforts to find the lady-boy cabaret at the night market were nearly thwarted when we were pointed in completely different directions by no fewer than ten people. We finally found it, luckily catching the last couple songs and getting a good feel for the Thai tranny scene (I don’t quite understand what it is about Thailand and trannies/cross-dressers, but there sure are a lot) and Alan was kissed by one very gregarious waiter/waitress who obliged a photo with Jenni in exchange for a photo and a kiss to Alan.

Our last night in town we opted for a slightly classier scene, and enjoyed a bit of live jazz at North Gate Jazz Co-op’s weekly Tuesday jam session. Jenni turned 28 at this pleasant spot with spirited musicians, and tourists, locals and ex-pats spilling out of the diminutive space over the sidewalk and into the streets, drinking cocktails and enjoying the tunes.

We were in Chiang Mai right before the elections that were causing some pretty serious protest-related violence down in Bangkok (part of the reason we skipped Bangkok, as you’ll remember reading in our Railay post). There were some smaller protests taking place in Chiang Mai, including one instance before we arrived where a Molotov cocktail was thrown, but the protests we passed by were so small you might not even notice them. And it definitely did not feel unsafe. It is alarming what is happening in Bangkok, though, and our thoughts are with the Thai people hoping that they can find a peaceful resolution.

Practical Info

Chiang Mai is the largest city in northwest Thailand and a popular base for hill tribe trekking and further exploration of the area.  Most tourist attractions are concentrated in and around the square Old City.

Transportation: Chiang Mai international airport is only a few kilometers southwest of the old city.  A pre-paid taxi from the airport into town costs 120B, and our hotel charged 150B from town to the airport.  Some recommend the day train from Bangkok as a good way to see more of the country.  Overland travel to/from Laos is possible.  We considered going from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang by heading north, crossing to Huay Xai and then taking the two-day slow boat down the Mekong.  Some say it is a great journey, others that you might look back fondly but likely won’t enjoy the experience.  I saw a place that seemed to be advertising 1900B for this journey, though it wasn’t clear to me what that included and I doubt it includes your night of accommodation in Pak Beng.

It is easy enough to walk around the Old City.  To visit the markets, depending on your exact location and affinity for hoofing it, you might want to hire a tuk-tuk.  As a couple examples for local transport, a tuk-tuk from our hotel by north gate to Tsunami Sushi cost 120B, and from Nimmanhaemin Road back to our hotel cost 100B.

Our visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep involved a songthaew from near north gate to the zoo for 30B/each, followed by a shared songthaew up the hill for 40B/each.  On the return one shared songthaew took us from the temple back to north gate for 60B/each.

Accommodation: There are tons of options here.  We stayed at Sawasdee Chiang Mai House in the northeast part of the Old City.  Jenni was a little less enthusiastic, but I could recommend this place.  For ~$40/night, we had a huge room with a pretty comfy bed and a bathroom with a shower curtain!  Maybe it wasn’t the cleanest, but some division of shower and other space in a bathroom is now a cause for celebration.  The included breakfast was decent and filling and WiFi worked well.

Location-wise, I might rather stay a little closer to the Old City’s east gate where there is more action, but our spot was very convenient.  There are some high-end properties at varied distances outside the Old City that I’ve heard are wonderful, including the Four Seasons (not to be confused with the Four Seasons Golden Triangle) and Anantara.

Food and Drink: For sure our favorite part of Chiang Mai, in case you couldn’t tell.  Street food is everywhere.  The Saturday and Sunday walking streets are loaded, as is Warorot Market and the daily night market.  Plus there are small to large collections of stalls at several places throughout the city.  Street food averages 10-40B per meal.

Sushi is widely available.  Our meal at Tsunami with plenty of food, sake and beer cost 820B.

Chiang Mai has quite a coffee shop culture (I enjoyed my iced mocha at Akha Ama), and a nice cup of java was a welcome change from many places we’ve been on this leg.

One night we had a carafe of white wine at Brasserie near east gate.  It cost 390B and the space is nice, with live music later at night.

Nimmanhaemin Road is close to Chiang Mai University and has many boutiques, bars, restaurants and coffee shops. Kamrai Shop is a liquor store where you can drink your purchase at tables out front. There are also several spots along the Ping River, a handful of blocks east of the Old City.

The little backpacker / reggae bar complex is described as follows in http://www.1stopchiangmai.com: “Chiang Mai’s very own backpacker-cum-little Jamaica is a cluster of bars around a car park just off Ratvithi, down from the Irish Pub. Here you’ll find a lively collection of shacks or open air bars with several live bands, cheap beer and food. It’s downmarket but has character and is popular with beatnik locals and backpackers alike. Best bars include Zoe in Yellow (popular), Babylon Café (Irie), Roots, Rock, Reggae (live music) and Heaven’s Beach (pool tables).”

Activities: There are temples all over the Old City.  Cover your knees and shoulders to visit.  The weekend walking streets and night and other markets are entertaining and loaded with good food.  Cooking classes are popular.  Trekking (single and multi-day), elephant rides, climbing, rafting and more are offered by countless tour operators.  A couple hour visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (30B) is worthwhile.  I believe there is a touristy hill tribe village further up the road. I have heard that Huay Tung Thao Lake can be fun, especially on a hot day.  And how about hour-long massages for $5-10!

January 24-29, 2014 (Friday-Wednesday)

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