Hannah Esper is a good friend of mine from our days working together in Chicago. She’s now a journalist and editor living in Michigan. She visited me in Chiang Mai in February this year, and we had a wonderful time seeing the sights and sampling the tastes of Thailand together. I asked her to write up something about her week there, and she obliged with this lovely piece on the things she learned about food in Thailand. Thanks, Hannah!
Many people asked why I had chosen Thailand as my destination to meet Lisa on her trip. The decision was an easy one for me as I had worked as a server at a Thai restaurant when I was younger and had become accustomed to the food and culture. Thai food is still my favorite cuisine and I felt rather knowledgeable and excited about it going on this trip.
As was a main goal of mine, Lisa and I ate a lot during our week in Chiang Mai. Most everything was as delicious as I was hoping for. There was also a couple disappointing dishes as well. The following is list of what we discovered on our culinary adventure:
1. Atmosphere is not a good indicator for quality/taste.
One of the best meals we ate was at this tiny place that was near our hotel. I wouldn’t quite call it a restaurant, as it was more like the back of someone’s house, as many places were. There were two tables in the alley that was basically a woman’s backyard. We were served on mismatched plates and silverware, and served our dishes one at a time, since there was literally one person cooking the food. It was pretty common in Chiang Mai, in fact, for dishes to come at all different times, which made eating with others interesting.
The worst meal of the trip was at a cute, kitschy bar called “The Wall” that was owned by a Westerner. Adorned with Pink Floyd memorabilia, the bar served mostly Western food, including french fries without salt, and a terrible attempt at Pad Thai.
2. You often will not receive what you order, but it’s fine!
As was true at the backyard “restaurant,” mentioned above, you often don’t receive the exact dish that you ordered. The menu might say the chicken is fried, but it comes out grilled. Or the menu says the dish has broccoli in it but you actually get broccoli, carrots, and mushrooms. The most exciting surprise is… when you ask for mild spice and it comes out burn-your-insides spicy! The food was always delicious, though, so we didn’t mind these modifications.
3. Vegetarian options are plentiful; you just have to look for them.
Thai food is great for both meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. The Thai restaurant I worked at in high school was a hot spot for all the vegetarians and vegans in town. In the states, tofu is a common protein option in most dishes at Thai restaurants. In Thailand, however, most food vendors serve dishes with the traditional protein that is intended for that particular dish. Tofu is often served in Pad Thai but not many other dishes. Fortunately, there were many restaurants in Chiang Mai that served strictly vegetarian food. After a couple days in town, Lisa and I got better at finding them. At these restaurants, traditional dishes were served with meat substitutes, but we found that most dishes were so flavorful that it wasn’t even necessary. We were content with just the rice/noodles, vegetables and curry.
4. Expensive does not equate to better.
Probably the best food we ate in Chiang Mai was bought on the street, and cost less than $2. The first night I was in town, Lisa and I went to the Saturday night market, which had many vendors selling cheap eats on sticks. I did not partake in the meat-on-a-stick, but Lisa enjoyed it. I did, however, eat fried banana with condensed milk and it was quite possibly the best thing I’ve ever tasted. The Sunday night market had even better food and we enjoyed the best Pad Thai of the trip. The cook had a huge bowl of the pre-made ingredients, which she tossed in the wok with some fried egg and sauce and served up in a banana leaf.
5. Fruit shakes – a surprising delight.
On every corner. Every fruit combination. All delicious and cheap. Check out our favorites.
6. Nobody cooks Thai likes Thais.
Since moving to Mississippi a few years ago, my mom has been going through Thai food withdrawal. We bought her a wok and she’s begun to cook her own Thai dishes. She’s even started teaching other Mississippians who’ve never had the pleasure of having good Thai, or any Thai, for that matter. Her dishes are good… but it’s just not the same.
Over the years, I’ve attempted to replicate dishes from my old restaurant. I picked up a few things while working there, but I just can’t get the tofu as crunchy or rice as sticky. During our trip, Lisa and I took an excellent cooking class at one of the local schools. We learned to make a couple traditional dishes, including curry paste, and were sent home with a simple recipe book. Everything we made that night was incredible. Now that I’m home, I will try yet again to recapture the tastes of Chiang Mai.
Dearest fellow travelers,
Please excuse Lisa from a real blog post today, as she picked up a cold in Japan that has evolved into a proper chest cough, and also she is in the cold, damp land of the UK, and frankly only has enough energy to focus on sightseeing and not on documenting. Don’t worry, she’s safe in the care of her good friend Liz, who is exploring Wales with her before handing her off to her parents tomorrow. She and Liz are managing to have lots of fun despite the impediment of illness.
Here she is in Cardiff, showing off her drugs:
She expects to be back on the job soon, and thanks you for your understanding.
Lisa’s Sore Throat
In no particular order:
1. First time driving on the left
2. First time eating sushi (the real kind, with raw fish)
3. First time riding in a tuk-tuk
4. First time using crampons
5. First time drinking sake
6. First time riding a motorbike
7. First time eating kangaroo and camel
8. First time sailing
9. First time snorkeling
10. First time feeding an elephant
I like to pretend that my short time in Ayutthaya, ancient capital of the kingdom of Siam, was spent in the manner of a ruler from that era: whisked from magnificent stupa to impressive monument in my personal chariot, all doors open to me. In reality, of course, I bounced along in the back of a tuk-tuk and paid the same entrance fees as everyone else, but when the afternoon sun is beating down and you only have a few hours in a place when you’d planned to have two days, you have to inject a little romance where you can.
Ayutthaya is a World Heritage site, and as such it’s better maintained than many tourist sites in Thailand. All the guidebooks suggest renting bikes to get from one site to another, which sounds nice in theory, but in practice it still means dodging terrifying traffic and sucking in mouthfuls of exhaust. Some friends did bike to different temples, and they said those were the problems exactly, plus it’s super hot, of course. So all in all, I’m glad I paid $20 for a driver to take me door-to-door for three hours.
The city of Ayutthaya was founded in the 14th century, and at its peak at around 1700 CE it had 1 million inhabitants, which made it one of the largest cities in the world. In 1767 the Burmese invaded, burning the city to the ground and committing blasphemous acts like cutting the heads off the stone buddhas in the temples. The kingdom would be fought over and rebuilt over the next few years, but the capital was never re-founded on the same site, and it’s remained in ruins to this day.
Some of the temples seemed to be out of use, while others contained buddha statues, yellow or saffron cloth coverings, and other signs that they were still active places of worship.
Guards stationed themselves by the head in the tree of Wat Phra Mahathat to make sure people took respectful photographs. It’s considered disrespectful to put your head above that of a buddha or monk, so any time you’re in a temple you have to watch yourself. Since this particular head somehow got wrapped up in the roots of this tree, it’s even lower than statues usually are, and you have to kneel on the ground to make sure you’re not breaking any taboos.
I visited Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, which a fellow American told me was the site of some scenes from Mortal Kombat–look familiar, anyone?
The reclining buddha of Phra Budhasalyart, according to legend, got in that position because a giant was boasting about how big he was, and how therefore he didn’t need to pay proper respect to the buddha. The buddha made himself bigger than the giant and just laid out on his side, like, hey, what’s up, we can play this game if you really want to. (I presume the giant was humbled, though accounts don’t say.)
The last stop of the day, Wat Phu Khao Thong, was one of the nicest simply because the sun was going down and the site was deserted. Once my driver dropped me off at the bridge that served as the entrance, it was just me and a determined evening jogger as the sun descended and the temple folded itself in shadow. It was a peaceful end to a busy afternoon of temple-hopping, and kudos to my driver for arranging it that way.
Most people took pictures of this guy after we disembarked in the neighborhood of Asakusa, and he started posing with his sword drawn. But I spotted him while the boat was docking and loved the idea–completely false but still fun–that this area of Tokyo was guarded by a ninja, invisible until he’s needed and always standing ready to defend his turf.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done a “look at the funny stuff I’m seeing” post, and yes, this one includes a funny anglicization or two. I’ve loved my time in Tokyo. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay with a generous host and her adorable child, and I’ve had great weather that makes every park, shrine, and neon-lit street a pleasure to explore. Also, I keep coming across the funny, wacky sights that every big city offers up. On Wednesday, I leave Tokyo for London–what weird and wonderful things will I see there?