Chiang Mai in 10 days…a visit with my sister
February 26, 2017
If you plan to visit Chiang Mai for a week or two, or like us, have visitors coming, don’t worry about having enough to do. This city is full of surprises if you just start walking. I have included a few comments and observations made by my sister as well as my own thoughts.
My sister from Calgary came for a visit and I had a chance to see Chiang Mai through new eyes. It is surprising how quickly we have become used to scooters carrying 4 people with no helmets, sidewalks that are impossible to walk 2 abreast and markets that appear at a moment’s notice. Living in Thailand is complex but if you can learn to go with the flow, it is a pretty easy place to live. I will do a bit more reading up on Buddhism, monks and wats because I knew so few answers to those questions asked as we walked through the city.
Nancy has 2 teenagers still at home so only had about 10 days to spend with us. I wanted her to get a sense of our life here, but also a little time to herself so we arranged for her to stay in Smith Residence which is only a block or so away. It is the sister building to ours and a regular hotel room with a bed, couch, fridge and decent bathroom in a secure building was 7950 baht for 11 nights. When converted, $295 seems pretty reasonable.
Chinese New Year’s
My sister, Nancy, arrived on Chinese New Year’s weekend. After realizing that crossing the street means breaking all the rules we learned as children, we found our way to Chinatown. We didn’t see much as far as dragons and drums during our walk, but the streets were closed to traffic and decorated with red lanterns. There was an outside market with many foods that I didn’t recognize. The rotating, flapping quail were quite memorable as were the piles of bugs and beetles offered for sale. It’s a good thing I wasn’t hungry at the time.
We did stop for a visit in the Thamel Coffee which is a little place up above a clothing store. You have to walk all the way through the tightly packed shelves until you come to a little stairway hidden along one aisle. When you arrive upstairs, you think you have just arrived in Nepal. There are statues and sparkly fabrics on some regular tables and chairs, and also some tables set up on cushion covered platforms where you sit cross-legged on a cushion with your feet under the table. We had cool drinks as coffee was too hot for the afternoon.
Nancy is celiac but she brought a page written in Thai that explained her inability to eat gluten, including soya sauce. Another resident in our building with the same issue had shared some restaurant names with us and Trip Advisor had a list of top 10 gluten-free restaurants in Chiang Mai. Between these 2 sources, finding places or dishes that she could safely eat was not nearly as difficult as I expected.
We finished our first day of touring with a walk down the Sunday Walking Street. It is an area of about 8 blocks that close to traffic every Sunday night and open as a market for souvenirs and street food. There were less people than usual with New Year’s events going on as well. It was a good start to Nancy’s shopping list for gifts to take back to family and friends.
Wat Chedi Luang
Considering the 14 hour time change, Nancy did really well at keeping up. We started the next day a little more slowly and wandered over to Wat Chedi Luang. It is the largest wat in the city with a chedi that makes me think of Egyptian pyramids, although I haven’t seen one of them in person yet. We put on wrap around skirts to be respectful and spent some time inside the wat.
Since it was just after Chinese New Years, there were strips of paper with the twelve Chinese animals representing each year. People could buy them and write messages on them and hang them from a wire just overhead. It seemed like a mixed metaphor to have Chinese animal symbols used to fund raise and make merit in a Buddhist temple but they were a colorful addition to the wat. We also saw many people being blessed by a monk who said some prayers and splashed water over them with a rice straw brush.
Chiang Mai is full of surprises. The Thamel Coffee House is one and so is the Clay Studio. We were there in November and made Krathong to release in the river. Nancy and I sat in the cool, shady jungle among the clay sculptures and drank Thai Tea. It’s an iced drink made with instant tea, powdered milk, evaporated milk, and frothed milk on top. It is usually very sweet with added palm syrup, but it’s not a mix so I can get it made with only a little sugar. It is very orange but it’s kind of like an ice capp with tea.
Thai Farm Cooking School
Market and Farm
Nancy and I spent a day back at the Thai Farm Cooking School because I knew they could adapt their recipes to celiac versions. Nancy also brought her own gluten free soya sauce from home so was able to make everything. We started with a tour of a market, including the butcher shop where they have fans with plastic strips keeping the flies away. There are fish and eels still flapping in their buckets as well as chicken feet and chunks of meat being chopped up with a cleaver on a wooden block. We also saw all the varieties of rice for sale as well as the countless fruits available in Thailand.
I like this cooking school because they are out in the country so you can see rice fields and morning-glory growing in the fields. The morning-glory stems and leaves are used in stir fries. Once at the farm you can taste the different kinds of basil and peppers right off the plants. You get to see turmeric roots and galangal, lemongrass and Pandan leaves as they grow.
Cook like a Thai
After pounding our own curry in a stone mortar and pestle we made soup, curried shrimp, chicken and basil stir fry, pad thai, papaya salad and bananas cooked in coconut milk with palm sugar. We also learned a much easier way to make rice. Put the rice in the cooker, then fill it with water up to the depth of one knuckle above the rice. We ate and ate and then ate some more. We were so stuffed from all the great food we had made that we took some home for later.
Take out containers in Thailand are a little different than home. No matter what the food is (including soup) it’s put into a plastic bag. You fill it with air and then close it with a small elastic band. Lots of low volume plastic bags but no styrofoam containers in the landfills here.
The cookbook that you get to keep has really clear recipes with pictures of all the ingredients. The last time I was there, I tasted a chili jam sauce but I didn’t know which one it was in the store. I emailed them and they sent me a picture and told me I could buy it at 7-11. This book will be one of my treasured souvenirs. It was a great day for Nancy to know what ingredients were in the restaurant dishes she wanted to try. She has put her lessons to good use at home, making numerous Thai inspired dishes for her family.
One of the popular souvenir items in Thailand are gems and jewellery. There are rubies from Myanmar and star sapphires found locally. There is a large gem market in Bangkok. The biggest reason for buying these items in Thailand is primarily the quality and low-cost of the stone cutting as well as the creativity of the jewellery makers.
There is a little jewellery shop just across our street. Several people in our building had rings made there and were very pleased with the results. The husband and wife work in a tiny store front with limited counter space and poor lighting. They have a few samples made up and a binder of ideas for rings, pendants and earrings. Where they excel is in taking an idea and designing it into a beautiful original piece using whatever stones you choose.
Stones are sorted by color and quality and carefully matched. Suggestions were considered and expanded. All this while their little daughter is sitting on the floor listening to “The Wheels on the Bus” in English on a phone, or pulling out containers of gems from the open shelving and popping them in her mouth or tipping them onto the cement floor. Their marketing was strictly in the quality of their work. There was no money spent on decor.
What to Buy?
It took most of a morning for Nancy to decide, but she selected a sapphire ring and earrings, an opal pendant and a blue topaz one too. She ordered a set of cuff links for her husband that each conained a square Myanmar ruby. Everything is made of silver, then dipped in white gold. He had brushed the gold in the background layer around the stones. They are gorgeous. The 2 cuff links were the most expensive at $120.
By the time she picked them up, she ordered another ring for Kevin and another hand designed pendant for herself. After getting home, she decided on another pendant for a gift as well as having another identical ring made for her daughter. The first one was too big and it was almost as expensive to have it resized as replaced. Anyone need a beautiful sapphire ring?
I waited until hers were done and went back on Valentines Day to order my own souvenir. I have a wide band ring in the works with a Myanmar ruby in the center with a sapphire on each side. It is about $120. Pictures will follow. The biggest lesson I learned is not to judge a book (storefront) by its cover, even you even noticed that it was there. Artists can work from anywhere.
Mae Sa Waterfalls
It was nice to get out of the city in a rented car and share the beautiful countryside with a visitor. Although we had taken this trip quite recently, we found a few new places to visit. The Mae Sa waterfalls were quiet and a place to just sit and take in nature.
Elephant Poo Poo Paper Park
Next we backtracked to the Elephant Poo Poo Paper Park which was so much fun. It is owned by a Canadian and they use the fibre left in Elephant poo to make paper. We had a tour guide who talked about the history of paper making back to the Egyptians. He explained how the poo is left in the sun to dry and lose any smell, then it’s mixed with water and natural dyes. A screen lifts the fibre out of the water in a big sheet where it is left to dry. They press some of the paper mechanically to make smooth writing paper.
When we finished the tour, we had a chance to purchase a paper item and decorate it with shapes and letters cut out of colored hand-made paper. I bought a little journal to record photo and camera info then decorated it with an elephant and the year. It was a fun and interesting stop and cost about $4 each.
Although we had mixed feelings about elephant camps and the treatment these animals receive, the Mae Sa Elephant Camp was recommended by a neighbor. We only visited the nursery portion of the camp where they keep the mothers and their babies. There are other areas where you can ride the animals or see them paint pictures, but the treatment we witnessed was respectful of the animals.
We first saw the elephants being bathed in the river, with and without help from the mahouts, and mahouts in training. They obviously enjoyed the cooling water and in a natural setting like the river, I could imagine elephants in the wild. The mahouts controlled them with a tug on their ear and hand gestures. They did not use the sharp sticks or yell at them.
Next we walked to the compound area where most of the large elephants were controlled with a rope loop that they raised one foot to have put in place. We bought bananas and sugar cane to feed to them, which they would take right out of our hands. One was too smart though, knowing we had more behind our backs. He would signal by hooting through his truck for more. They also had large piles of bamboo leaves to eat.
One of the smallest babies was in a fenced area with its mother. Others were with their mahouts, drinking from a hose or throwing trunkfuls of dirt over their backs. Overall, I felt the animals were quite content, even in this setting. I was happy, though, not to see them painting or playing soccer.
Market in the Hills
We decided to skip the botanical garden this time since we spent time making paper and carried on north through the agricultural areas and ended up high on a ridge where we could see far across the fields. These hills were terraced since the hill was too steep for regular planting. It was surprising how narrow each tier was, just deep enough to drive a tractor or water buffalo along. There were a couple of women selling handmade purses and the other selling fruit. They were dressed in traditional black velvet and sequins jackets. The sewing lady was stitching a lovely design in bright pink onto a black background. She had obviously been doing this for decades as she was very quick at it and so accurate. They both agreed to let me take their pictures, although I bought some small purses and a basket of fresh strawberries.
We had a wonderful lunch at the same little place as last time, up in the hills. The cook didn’t speak much English, but she was able to read Nancy’s celiac restrictions and made us a delicious lunch. When were finished, she brought us a bowl of fresh picked strawberries that were so delicious! We finished the trip with a short backtrack to the Samoeng Forest viewpoint.
I wanted to share more than just the interesting places a tourist can visit in Chiang Mai. I wanted Nancy to see what it is like for us to live in this city so we took her to Pickle ball with us. She had brought us some real paddles from home so we were anxious to try them out. Except for one little tumble, with a fantastic tuck and roll, she did great for her first time. We played a few games and chatted with people from around the world about why they came here and also their perspective on politics in the USA.
We stopped for a coffee break then walked over to the local grocery store so she could see it wasn’t too hard to find most of what we might crave. She even found some gluten-free oyster sauce and some crackers and snacks. We stopped to visit my favorite wat, Muen San on the way back. It is a relatively new one made of silver and is filled with images that depicts scenes from the past.
Chiang Mai Flower Festival
There are so many random events that take place in Chiang Mai. The Flower Festival is an annual event that occurs the first weekend in February. It is a celebration of all things that grow and overnight, a park transforms into a magical garden that had me thinking of the greenhouse at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. A street surrounding the park is set up with stalls for the display of fantastic orchids and Bonsai trees and forests for judging. All the bridges in town are covered with blooming plants and one of the bridges over the moat was covered in and archway of lights as well. There is a Miss Chiang Mai Flower Festival crowned and a parade that would rival the Parade of Roses in Pasedena, except for the interruption of the parade because of the scooters and cars that suddenly burst into any little gap between the floats. Even the marching bands were impressive.
The blooming beds of tulips in the park were special. I never thought of the tropics as a place for my favorite “welcome to spring” plant. Archways built over the sidewalks were covered with blooming orchids inside, petunias outside and way too many people trying to take selfies halfway through the arch.
The girls vying for the crown must have been recruited from several of the backpacker hostels as they were from around the world. Their talents, or definite lack of talent were very entertaining. The Asian girls often had traditional dances to share. The American girl who got down on the floor to demonstrate “the worm” had everyone worrying she was going to lose the top of her elegant costume. We spent Friday evening at the park and Saturday morning at the parade.
Saturday Walking Street
I needed a nap after the parade, but we got out ahead of the crowds to the Saturday Walking Street, which just means they close the streets and open a market. At 6 pm, everyone stops and stands at attention while they play the National Anthem of Thailand over the loudspeakers. Nancy found some traditional long skirts that we saw worn by many women in the parade and I found a dress and money clip for Pete. The market is along Wua Lai Street which is known as the silver district. Near the end of the shopping area we ended up at Wat Sri Suphan, which is another silver wat, although women are not allowed to enter.
I hadn’t been there at night before and we discovered another surprise in Chiang Mai. Red and green and blue lights that changed light up the silver. There were also a group of young men being put through their paces in drumming and fighting with sticks. They weren’t dressed as monks but there was an older man coaching them through the steps. We also had a chance to see a few monks working on some silver scenes in the workshop.
3D Museum-Art in Paradise
This is another example of a huge surprise, finding a world class interactive art display in a developing country. The art was all done by South Korean artists. It was great fun to take pictures of each other that looked like we were in the movies. There was a group of teenage school children there as well. They were so creative and gave us lots of ideas for photo shots. Be sure to go with a friend and a camera.
After a couple of hours of giggles, we had lunch at Butter is Better. It’s an American Diner kind or restaurant, but they also understand gluten-free food. After lunch we picked up the 3 shirts that Peter had made just the way he wanted. The salesman was also a designer and matched some nice trim fabric to the basic shirt material. We looked at gems, learned more about the industry from a salesman who just wanted to share knowledge about his passion then finished the night walking through the Sunday market. It was pretty crowded but an interesting experience.
Wat Doi Suthep
Our big day of adventure was a trip up the mountain to visit Wat Doi Suthep. We took the Songthaew from our neighborhood to the zoo, (35 baht each) then transferred at the zoo to another one travelling up the mountain (40 baht each). We brought our masks this time because the exhaust blowing in the back as the engine struggled to climb the mountain on our last trip was nauseating. The masks helped, although this vehicle was in better driving condition.
It was more subdued this time. Although still busy, the people were quieter. It was too hazy to see the city unfortunately. Nancy got a couple of good pictures of an older monk. She wanted to participate in one of the blessing ceremonies, but he took a break just as we arrived. She wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to seek a blessing for someone who doesn’t practice Buddhism. It wasn’t long before the crowds were overwhelming to the people trying to pray or just trying to sit quietly. There were so many people trying to take group photos and selfies, they were pushing others out of the way. There was nowhere to go to get out of their way. It was time to leave.
Photo Club Exhibit
We took another songthaew down (60 baht each) to Maya Mall to view the local Photographers Club exhibit. I belong to this group, but the photos were selected before I arrived. It was a great exhibit of local scenes as well as some shot in member’s home countries. A quick lunch, a walk around a Thai food court (another experience I wanted to see through new eyes) and a quick stop for a few groceries and we were ready to call Uber to take us home. (75 baht for 3) There are about $0.38 to 10 Thai Baht so it was about $2.80 for the 3 of us to get home.
Wat Chiang Man
I wanted to share the first wat that we visited when we arrived in Chiang Mai the beginning of November to see if it was still special because of its own qualities, or special because I saw it first and decided that it was special of its own accord. I still love the chedi with the elephants walking out of it on all 4 sides and Wat Chiang Man is the oldest wat in Chiang Mai. Since I hadn’t been inside the other buildings, we spent some time looking around. There were only a few people wandering around, with a minimum of selfie takers. The garden area is so serene which makes it a very meditative place.
We noticed that even the monks need to do their chores One was gardening while another was taking in his laundry.
We had travelled by rental car, Uber, songthaew and of foot, but we hadn’t taken a tuk-tuk yet so we went from the wat to the gem store in our last means of conveyance. What a ride! They weave in and out of traffic at a breakneck speed. They are loud and the drivers so daring. I was relieved when we arrived in one piece. When we got out she said, “That was fun but once was enough.” Nancy had a list from home of some uncut gems to pick up so we did a little more shopping then went home to rest.
It was our last day together. Nancy picked up her jewellery and ordered a couple more items. I didn’t feel well but we went to choir. Pete and Nancy went out for dinner and I had a nap. We arrived at the airport just a the tour group heading back to Beijing on the same flight showed up. It was a long line, but it moved along. We waited until she went through security then headed back home, one family member short.
You can ask her how her flight went. Her advice was to wear all your clothes in Beijing. This big international city doesn’t have any heat in their airport, even when you have a 10 hour layover. I haven’t seen the coat that she had to buy there yet. The flowers her husband brought to the airport helped to make up for it.
This is a very long post but it should give you the idea that if you want to come for a visit, there is more than enough to keep you busy for a couple of weeks, even with a few hours to rest here and there. I am so glad I had a chance to share our winter home with my sister.
If you just read the blog on email, be sure to check out the web page retiredtraveller.com for more pictures found under the Travel tab at the top.
Luang Prabang is a great place for food
February 7, 2017
We only stayed in Luang Prabang for 4 nights but quickly discovered it is a great place for food. We watched a youtube video of food in Laos before we left, and also talked with some people in Chiang Mai about what they like to eat in this new country. I was excited to hear about the quality of bread in Luang Prabang. It is a SE Asian country, but the influence of the french from the 1800’s until 1956 left behind many items on menus today.
Our guesthouse included breakfast. We chose our fried, scrambled, hard-boiled eggs or an omelet the night before. In the morning it was served with a plate of fresh papaya and watermelon, a slice of ham, a “sausage” that looked like a hot dog stuffed with cream cheese, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes and a big baguette with butter and jam. They served dripped coffee rather than espresso as it is in Thailand. It was in an urn and you were welcome to bottomless cups. We expect that at a hotel in Canada, but coffee servings are very small here. Did I say there was bread??? We buy bread in the grocery store in Chiang Mai, and there are a couple of bakeries that serve sandwiches on crusty baguette. Cakes and donuts are for sale in Chiang Mai, but rice and noodles are the primary source of carbohydrates.
Lunches consisted of snacks since we had such a big breakfast every day. Spring rolls, lemon tarts, and sandwiches tided us over until supper. We found a restaurant, Joma, owned by a Canadian who served Bagel and Eggers and Nanaimo Bars! We met some friends from our choir at a french cafe on a day where we just seemed to move from a coffee shop to a cafe to a bakery. There was, however, a tour of the Royal Palace in between.
Royal Palace Between Meals
The monarchy was removed from Luang Prabang in 1976. Since that time, the royal palace has been turned into a museum. We were not allowed to take any pictures inside and had to have covered shoulders and knees to enter. I knew that temples require you to dress respectfully but I wasn’t prepared for it in the museum. My dress covered my shoulders alright. I usually wear yoga shorts under my dress and had to pull them down over my knees and hope they wouldn’t fall off while we were walking around! I didn’t want to miss the tour.
The palace was built in 1904. The furniture in this building was old and many pieces had been given to the former king by other countries. The bedrooms were large with high ceilings but not very much in the way of decor besides large portraits of members of the royal family and beautiful porcelain urns and plates given as gifts.
The highlight of the Royal Palace was the reception room The walls and ceilings were painted a rich cranberry red. Every surface was covered with stories and legends created from colorful cut glass pieces. There were hundreds of elephants in battles, men building villages and temples, farmers working in the fields. Everywhere you looked was another story. It was complemented with a series of pictures on the wall telling the story of a long ago Laos prince who got in trouble for giving away the lucky white elephant to the poor and was banished to the jungle.
We had 4 memorable dinners in Luang Prabang. The first was a traditional meat dish called laap It is made from chopped chicken or water buffalo mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, mint, coriander, spring onion, chili and uncooked rice grains that have been dry fried and crushed. There were handfuls of fresh herbs mixed in. A little bamboo basket of sticky rice was served on the side. It was really fresh tasting and not very spicy.
The second night we ate dinner beside the Mekong at the Mekong Fish Restaurant. I ordered the Mekong Fish, of course, which was a wonderful curry and coconut creamy stew with big chunks of succulent catfish. It was a perfect accompaniment to the beautiful sunset.
We finished just in time to catch a local storyteller and musician known as Garavek telling tales of Lao history and legends accompanied by an instrument called a khene which you can see in this video.
Five Star Restaurant
Our third dinner could have been served at any 5 star restaurant in the world. The Azerai Hotel and restaurant have only been open for a month. They had menus at the street level that we saw at one of our lunches. The chef is from the UK and his goal is to use as many local ingredients as possible. The staff had been training for a few weeks while they waited for completion of the construction. There were only a couple of other people in the restaurant and the chef came out and talked to us.
They serve small plate meals. We shared a fried fish with a salad of mint, basil and cilantro with a fresh vinaigrette. We also had fish cooked in lime with pomello. My favorite was a quinoa salad with roasted beets, carrots and fresh ricotta made on site. We shared meringue chunks topped with mango yogurt topped with passion fruit for dessert. The meal with drinks was about $50 for two. We sat out on the balcony overlooking the street but it was a bit dark so they clipped a light onto a glass so we could appreciate the food better.
Our last dinner was completely different. We had a Laos fondue at the Dyen Sabbai restaurant which was just at the top of the bamboo bridge a few doors down from our guesthouse. They brought a clay lined bucket of fire to our table and inserted it into a hole in the middle. After a metal tray was placed on top, a broth was poured into the outside. The inside of the tray was raised into a cone shape. The buffalo meat was laid on top of the cone to cook over the fire and the vegetables and noodles were cooked in the broth. Garlic and chilis were served on the side to add to the broth.
This meal just kept getting better and better. The meat juice and the cooking vegetables turned a plain stock into a savory and hearty broth. The waiter kept stopping by to add more fuel to the coals and top up the broth. It was a dining adventure to say the least.
Our final experience in Luang Prabang was not food related for me, but it was for the monks. Every morning, all the monks in the area walk down the streets of town before sunrise. The temple that has 400 monks, bus them to different parts of town to spread them out to collect alms. The local people make merit by offering food or money to them. They carry little bowls to hold the food and offer a chanted blessing back in return. The monks can only eat what they are given and have to have ingested it all by noon so they don’t eat after that.
It is a solemn ceremony. There were about 30 monks came down our street between 6:15 and 6:30 and about 6 women outside with prepared food for them. They seemed to give the first in the group a larger bag, then smaller ones for the rest. I couldn’t tell what was in them. It to see how young some of the boys were.
It was well worth travelling to Laos to manage our visa. We returned to the Chiang Mai airport and got a stamp that allows us to be a visitor to Thailand for another 30 days. We will do the same when we return from Cambodia next month.
It did feel strange to be returning from a holiday and still feel like we are on holiday.