Days Gone Pai

When we first arrived in northern Thailand, we didn’t really have any idea of where we wanted to go. We knew we wanted to go somewhere else besides Chiang Mai, but we hadn’t yet made up our minds on where that might be.

So many choices....

That’s no problem in Southeast Asia, though. You can pretty much get anything you want, anytime, for a very reasonable price. The tourist infrastructure here is easy to navigate, and it’s everywhere. Some people complain that it’s hard to get off the beaten track, and I sympathize. The endless rows of guesthouses, travel agencies, massage parlors, and hybrid Thai-Western restaurants gets really monotonous. And if I need a taxi, I will find you. But you can’t deny that’s it’s really convenient.

We kept meeting people who had just been to or were going to go to Pai, a small town near the Thai-Burmese border. It’s popular with both Western and Thai tourists. To be honest, we had no idea what was there, or where it was located on the map- but we were intrigued, and it seemed like the universe was pointing us towards Pai. So one day, we went into a travel agency, bought a ticket, and within two hours, we were on a minibus, heading towards a town that was a total mystery to us, but knowing that we’d find cheap accommodation and food at our destination.

Bungalows along the riverside, Pai

What is there to do in Pai? The town is so small that there’s no public transportation (only public long-distance buses to and from Pai) so the first thing many travellers do is rent a motorbike. Bob and I are experienced cyclists, after three years in Japan without a car, but we’d never driven a motorbike before. We were nervous. Our friend Adam, who’d been to Pai a couple of years ago, said that it wasn’t too hard, but he did note that he had seen several foreigners walking around town with bandaged limbs. Hmmm.

So the first and second day, we stayed near the city center. We relaxed by the river, sketched a temple, watched the sunsets, visited the night market, and after dark, checked out the many bars featuring live music. Our favorite place was called “Edible Jazz,” which not only has good music but also an effusive owner named Tom and a gaggle of friendly dogs.

No "Hotel California" here

The third day, I decided it was time. No more fear. Motorbike rental is ridiculously cheap in Pai- we paid 100 baht, or about $3.30, for a 30-hour rental (helmet included.) Plus, the traffic round Pai is really light. Conditions don’t get much more perfect than that. I reasoned that if we just couldn’t get the hang of it, we’d return the bikes and go back to relaxing by the river.

The rental agency asked if we had ever been on motorbikes before. We said no. They gave us automatic bikes, 110cc, and then got two of their staff to take us out to a quiet road where we could practice. Our cycling experience proved to be handy. It was like riding a big, clunky bicycle, without having to pedal. The only problem I had was that my palms were sweaty (due to both my nervousness and the heat,) and kept slipping. Other than that it was actually pretty easy.

Kids playing in the waterfall

We went up to the Yunnanese village, where some ethnic minorities from the Chinese province of Yunnan reside; then went to one of the many waterfalls in the area. The Yunnanese village is very touristy, but it was a nice place to take a break and have some lunch and tea. Due to the Thai kids currently being out on summer vacation, the waterfall was packed with families and school-age children playing in the water, but we were able to find a peaceful, secluded spot. The best part, though, was the mountain scenery. The whole area is quite mountainous (this is the foothills of the Himalayas, after all) but the area directly surrounding Pai is in a valley, so the riding was all pretty flat.┬áThere were more attractions we could’ve gone to, but we decided that was enough for one day, plus we didn’t want to be biking at night, so we took the motorbikes back.

Hey, Mom!

Check us out!

Eating Thailand

It’s really hard to find bad Thai food. Our first meal in Thailand was on the train. We weren’t expecting much, to be honest. But I once read (in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) that wherever you go in Italy, if that establishment serves food, the food is the point. Train food, airplane food, museum food- in America they’re all pretty inedible. The Thais, on the other hand, are much more like the Italians. They don’t abide bad food. My meal of green curry chicken and Bob’s meal of red curry with duck were not just edible, they were very good. Wherever we went, we found really good food.

Actually, one of my main reasons for wanting to go to Thailand was to eat the food, and also to learn how to cook it myself. I spent four days in Chiang Mai under the tutelage of Vannee and Meo at Classic Home Cooking School. This school was fantastic. Rather than pre-selecting the menu for her students, Vannee lets everyone choose individually what they would like to make. Her list of dishes to choose from was quite long (more than 50!) and since I was coming for more than one day, she allowed me to choose dishes that were not on the list.

Every day before class started, we took a trip to a local market near Vannee’s home. She shops there every morning, buying ingredients for her class as well as her own groceries. In class, we pounded our own curry paste every day (using mortar and pestle,) but for the lazy, you can buy curry paste at the market:

How many kilograms do you need?

You can also pick up some coconut cream or milk. One of my classmates referred to this as the “coconut cow.” The vendor cuts off the brown shell and grinds up the coconut into tiny pieces. Then she pours the shavings into this machine, along with some water; the machine presses out the moisture. The first pressing results in coconut cream and the second in coconut milk.

The milk comes out underneath, just like a cow

Finally we got to see some more unusual ingredients… for example, this local delicacy:

Can you guess? Yes, they're ant eggs! Great in stir-fries.

Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand, and the cooking styles and ingredients are a bit different there. The Burmese and Indian influence is more strongly felt than in the south. I tried to take photos of everything I made, but unfortunately some of it was so delicious that I forgot to take a picture before digging in. My favorite Thai dishes:

Pronounced like "tom yum" soup, because it's so yum

Tom yam gung soup: this was actually pretty difficult to make. First, I had to prepare a chili paste, similar to red curry paste or green curry paste. I used a pestle and mortar to pound it till it was completely smooth. Trust me, that is not easy when you’re working with ingredients like lemongrass or galangal (a tough Chinese ginger.) After that, I brought some chicken stock to a boil, added my chili paste, then some vegetables (tomato and onion) and finally, the shrimp. It’s garnished with cilantro.

Mmm, spicy!

Jungle curry: Every day before preparing our curry pastes, Vannee would ask if we wanted our pastes mild, medium, or hot, and adjust the number of chili peppers accordingly. On the day I made jungle curry, she said I had no choice; I had to make it hot. Unlike other Thai curries, the broth is not thinned with coconut cream or milk. To tell the truth, I was scared. But it actually wasn’t that hot. The ingredients for the broth (curry paste, lime juice, sugar) were so perfectly balanced that I found it easy to eat. The other ingredients were chicken, spring onion, baby corn, and straw mushrooms. It’s garnished with fresh green peppercorns.

The most perfect dessert

Mango with sticky rice and coconut cream: This was my favorite thing that I made. I made it on my third day, and I seriously considered making it on my fourth day as well, just so I could eat it again. And it was surprisingly easy to make. The sticky rice is cooked in a steamer for 10 minutes (the steamer is lined with cheesecloth so the grains don’t fall through.) After it’s cooked, sugar and coconut milk are added to the rice. The coconut cream, on top of the rice, has cornflour added to it (for thickening) and salt (to offset the sweetness of the rice and mango.) The mango doesn’t need anything- it’s just a perfect, ripe, delicious Thai mango. I thought the addition of the salt was weird, but eaten together with the rice and fruit, the entire dish was perfect. And I know I said “perfect” three times. I can’t think of any better way to describe this dish.

Thailand’s Temples

In Southeast Asia, we’re trying to travel overland as much as possible. To that end, we took a train all the way from Butterworth (in Malaysia) to Chiang Mai, Thailand, which took 36 hours, with a change of train in Bangkok. The train ride was a lot of fun: we chatted with the people sitting nearby, ate the Thai train food (surprisingly good) and were actually able to get some sleep! It was both of our first time on a sleeper train. The beds were really comfortable- maybe even more comfortable than some guesthouse beds.

Chiang Mai is a city that I had skipped on my last trip to Thailand, and I was really excited to go. I was not disappointed. Chiang Mai is like the Kyoto of Thailand: it has a long history, plenty of religious sites to visit, and best of all, Thai culture is very accessible there. It’s possible to take classes in Thai language, massage, cooking, etc. I signed up for a four-day Thai cooking course, but before my classes began, Bob and I had a few days to explore the city. We wandered around the old, walled city; called in to several temples, and gorged ourselves on cheap Thai food.

I’m pretty familiar with Buddhism, having lived in Japan, but the Buddhism practiced in East Asia is different from the Buddhism in South and Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism, which is the type practiced in Thailand, emphasizes only the Buddha’s teachings and is an older form of Buddhism than Mahayana Buddhism, which includes other teachings and doctrines that did not come directly from the Buddha. Also, in Theravada Buddhism, making merit is very important. Ways to make merit for yourself (thus ensuring a better rebirth) are to build temples or stupas, donate Buddha statues to a temple, become a monk for a short period of time, give alms to a monk… there must be more, but those are the only ones I know. The first thing I noticed in the Thai temples were that they were much more ornate than the Japanese ones. The altars, in particular, were chock-full of Buddha statues. In Japan, you typically find just one.

Statues of Buddha as well as offerings and photos of illustrious monks

Golden stupa at Doi Suthep

Stupas are also a lot more important in Thai Buddhism, it seems.One temple complex usually contains a main temple buildings, some smaller subtemples, and a stupa. They’re usually to enshrine something inside; in Southeast Asia, many temples claim to have a strand of the Buddha’s hair inside. A dead ancestor’s ashes might also be put inside, to make merit for the deceased person. At Doi Suthep (right,) there is supposedly a broken piece of one of the Buddha’s bones inside. On the other hand, the stupa at Wat Chedi Luang (below,) was built by a 14th-century king who intended to inter the ashes of his father.

One of the cool things you can do in Chiang Mai is take part in a “monk chat.” Different temples hold these at different times; we chatted with a monk at Wat Chedi Luang, which is drop-in style. It’s one of the more popular temples among tourists due to its gigantic, crumbling brick stupa (it was damaged in an earthquake 600 years ago.)

Broken 600-year-old stupa at Wat Chedi Luang

So many foreigners visit the temples in Chiang Mai but probably don’t know much about Buddhism, so English-speaking monks are on hand to answer questions. We ended up talking for an hour. The monk we spoke with was 24 years old and has been a monk for the past 11 years. It’s very common for boys in Thailand to become a monk for a few months, but not many stay for that long. He didn’t say so directly, but I got the impression that he was from a poor family, so attending a temple school was the only way for him to continue his education. Temples in Thailand don’t just focus on religious education, they also teach the usual school subjects like history and foreign languages. He was really good at English; he said he’s studying to be an English teacher. He said he gets a lot of respect in the classroom because he’s a monk.

Check out the dogs on the stairs

Another interesting thing that we learned is that in Chiang Mai, there are twelve temples devoted to the animals of the Chinese zodiac. They believe that when you die, your soul goes to rest in the temple of that animal. I didn’t find the ox temple, but Bob found his temple (he’s year of the dog.)

The outsides of the temple buildings are pretty fabulous as well. They’re extremely colorful and ornate. The eaves are the most unique aspect. I have heard (though I haven’t had confirmation on this) that the reason the eaves always point upwards is so that they’re pointing towards heaven.

A pretty little temple at Wat Chedi Luang