Friday, January 29, 2010

Chiang Mai Delight

Where to start? We arrived in this former capital city of the Kingdom of Lanna by overnight bus from Pattaya.

During our first afternoon we wandered the streets of the old city whose foundations and brick fortifications date back to the 13th Century. Our destination was Chiang Mai City Arts and Cultural Centre. Here we learned the Thai traditionally believe cities are living entities with a body and soul, whose prosperity depends upon its birth chart. Auspicious times have ebbed and flowed for this great city, once the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna. Today, it is part of the Kingdom of Thailand of course, but it’s still the centre of Northern Thailand.

Typical for the two of us, we jumped into action and booked ourselves into a Thai cooking course for the next day. Choosing a school is challenging due to the fact there is so much choice. However, as soon as we saw classes offered at the Thai Organic Farm, we knew we wanted to support this endeavour for sustainability and food security reasons.

IMG_1222For 900 bhat apiece we were picked up in a bhat truck, taken to a local market where ingredients we would be using were explained, then driven for 20 minutes or so through the countryside to the farm. En route we spied water buffalo grazing as well as plantations of bananas interspersed with papaya and many vegetables. City noises and pollution gave way to calm views: this confirmed we’d selected the right school for us.

IMG_1242Once at the farm, our teacher “Tommy” toured our group of 12 about, showing us vegetables, fruits and herbs such as Thai eggplant, lemon grass, and limes which we would be using in just a few moments. Then it was time to cook! Tommy stepped us through the menu of items we’d all chosen to make.

IMG_1335Both Eric and I were able to select 6 different types of food each, as did all the other couples. After watching Tommy’s demonstrations, it was easy to prepare such foods as green and red curries. All of us delighted in tasting and sharing our dishes after Tommy taught us how to eat sticky rice (by rolling it into a ball and dipping it into the curry). After lunch we cooked two more dishes, and then Eric and I were dropped off at Lai Thai Guest House. A fabulous day well spent!

Our clean room (690 bhat) at Lai Thai was comfortable but a bit dingy. Designed in a Northern Thai style, walls were honey coloured, made from woven, split bamboo while the floor was chocolate-coloured teak. After two nights we switched to room 219 overlooking the (cold) but nonetheless inviting swimming pool. After a few attempts, we decided not to dine here: service proved a bit iffy and the food? We cooked better Thai ourselves! Nonetheless, Lai Thai’s central location made it perfect for us and at roughly C$21/night, it was a good price.

Chiang Mai is full of museums. However, more unusual are the government-sponsored stores which showcase goods made by northern Thai hill tribes. We visited the “Thai Hill Tribe Products Promotion Foundation Under Royal Support” – quite the mouthful of a name. And if you think that’s odd, check out the label on the clothes: “BPP Hill Tribe” refers to Border Patrol Police. A brochure explains, “In buying these handicraft products, you help the hill tribe artisans to earn an alternative income [as well as] the border patrol police school students and their families.”

Browsing enabled us to research prices for traditional clothing, quilted fabrics, silver and other items we might purchase later from tribal peoples themselves.

We would soon discover many opportunities to barter…