Trekking and Cooking in Chiang Mai
If you ever make it to Chiang Mai, Congratulations! You are in my favorite city in Thailand. Why is it so perfect and ideal? It's clean, efficient, and has weather that beats the humidity down south and the pollution in Bangkok, an amazing night market, motorbikes and tuk-tuks that zip past pedestrians, a Main Street where north- and south-bound lanes are separated by a river, temples that pop up in residential areas, hill treks that start just a half-hour outside of the city, and, most importantly, world-class food at dirt-cheap prices.
Don't assume that I'm an expert on Chiang Mai; I only spent three days there. Two were spent trekking to a Lahu village, swimming in waterfalls, riding elephants and feeding them sugar cane, white water and bamboo rafting, eating pad thai and chicken curry, and sleeping by candlelight in a cabin on stilts. The last was spent cooking six courses of delicious Thai food, devouring each of them, and going to the local market to stare at twelve different barrels of rice, six species of mushrooms, fresh seafood swimming in tanks, and all those green vegetables that put shame to American broccoli and lettuce. Hold that jealous sigh; I shall indulge you more.
When we arrived in Chiang Mai, it was 4 a.m., and Julia and I were worried that we would have to wait for several hours before the city began to stir. As we stepped out of the bus station, we were amazed to see that some food shops were already beginning to cook their noodles, and a perky taxi driver drove us to our friend's coffee shop. After chatting with her for a bit, we headed to the local food market, where we bought breakfast. There is no cereal here; we feasted on fried fish, sticky rice, pumpkin curry, and bananas steamed in a pandan leaf. No wonder the Thais smile so much – if I could start every day with that kind of meal, I'd be grinning pretty widely, too.
An hour later, we were ready to head off to the hills for our trekking adventure. The next 36 hours were a flurry of riding elephants, basking in the freshness of lonely hills, watching tribe women harvest romaine lettuce, being licked by hungry puppies, and splashing through a waterfall. Our Thai guide wore plastic flip flops while eight Westerners huffed and puffed after him, sweating under our backpacks and stopping to take pictures of things only a tourist would find fascinating (a ten-kilo mass of elephant poo on the trail, a gurgling stream, houses on stilts, and boars roaming the countryside). We arrived at our base, a Lahu village, an hour before sunset and took advantage of the light to wash up in the basin and stroll through the village. It didn't matter that none of us took showers; we were all so foul-smelling that you couldn't tell whose feet smelled the worst. It was a communal scent.
That night, we feasted on green curry and stir fry, and after watching the Lahu children sing and dance (and after donating Thai Baht to a silver bowl passed around to "help fund the Lahu school"), we retired for the night. An early morning hike led us back down the mountain, and the next 2 hours were spent white water rafting (no rapids, but it was thrilling enough for me!) and bamboo rafting (think basic Huckleberry Finn). This happened to be one of the defining moments of my life: I decided that I will live near water (preferably the Mediterranean Sea) once I have a home.
That night, we wandered through the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, and treated ourselves to a splurge dinner: fresh steamed shrimps with asparagus and whole cloves of garlic, Khao Saoi (traditional Chiang Mai noodles in coconut milk soup), and sticky rice with mango. The best part? The bill: $5. We then met up with our bilingual friend, who explained every quirky snack in the food markets: fried bamboo larvae, dried durian, and fried pork rinds.
The next day, we tackled our next venture: cooking! Now, I can add to my resume "Can create delicious and authentic pad thai, green curry with chicken, tom yum soup, chicken and cashew nut stir fry, crispy spring rolls, and sticky rice with Thai custard." I became a master chef in five hours, thanks to our teacher Yui, who stressed the importance of using natural sugar, not processed, and grimaced at any food that was bright pink or red ("This is unnatural and not good for health"). She gave us a tour of the market, teaching us how to differentiate between different greens, showing us an array of fresh mushrooms, and enlightening us on the difference between jasmine rice, sticky rice, basmati rice, purple sticky rice, and other rices that I can't remember the names of. My favorite ingredients (by smell) were lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, and basil. My favorite ingredient (because of its shape and texture) was galangal. My favorite dish (by taste) was green curry. My favorite advice was how to wrap spring rolls so that the oil doesn't seep into the filling and create a greasy and floppy roll. The cooking class was the perfect finale to a too-short love affair with Chiang Mai.