Sunday, December 26, 2010

Chiang Mai: Wonderful Food, Markets and an Elephant Camp Visit

We made our way to Chiang Mai on Christmas Eve, and it was the perfect city to spend Christmas - a small, quaint city, we felt comfortable as soon as we arrived. As they say, "location is everything," and our hotel, Le Meridien, had the perfect location right by the popular night bazaar. Our days in Chiang Mai started great, with our dinner the first night at Just Khao Soy. Khao Soy is a northern noodle dish, noodles in a rich curry-like soup base with coconut milk. Several sites we had read recommended this restaurant, including the Nancy Chandler map, known to provide some unique local details. We found this homey restaurant not far from our hotel, and were welcomed into the air conditioned room for our dinner. Imagine sitting at a fancy noodle bar - that's what our experience was like. The restaurant is a full experience and education on khao soy, a must visit for anyone in Chiang Mai. Our menus were a guide to what and how to order: what kind of broth, thick or round noodles, and toppings etc. It's even vegetarian and allergy friendly! I chose chicken with bone broth while Tony had seafood. The meal that came was comprehensive and exciting, accompanied by assorted side dishes that small, street stalls also serve, but here, I had the benefit of a great placemat educating me what each item was for. Our side dishes included bananas to help sooth the mouth of spicy flavours, coconut milk to make the soup more mild as needed, pickled vegetables, onions, sugar, lime, fish sauce and more. It was a great learning experience to eat at Just Khao Soy, I think I could have eaten there everyday! We also had mango sticky rice for dessert, and unique assorted ice cream (basil, coconut and amaretto). A great first meal really set the tone for our trip!

We spent Christmas Day at an elephant camp north of the city.
We saw an elephant show that demonstrated how smart the animals are (playing soccer looked kind of fun!). We also had a very "chill" bamboo raft ride through the valley and an elephant ride on a trail through the mountains. It was nice to spend the day outside and in the beautiful valley. We probably could have done probably without raft ride or the elephant ride all together because the highlight was just playing with the elephants before the show - they were playful, gentle and kind. We were careful about choosing the elephant camp initially, some are better than others in how they treat the animals; but ultimately, they are still animals in captivity. If we had to choose again, we would go to the elephant sanctuary instead where they rehabilitate elephants because we really enjoyed just feeding and playing with then. Nonetheless, I think we developed a greater appreciation for elephants by going.

After returning to the city, we had a fabulous Christmas dinner at Sila Aat, a great restaurant in the Kalare Night Bazaar a stone's throw from our hotel. The open restaurant is known for its seafood, so we took our server's recommendation on the fresh catch of the day, red snapper (steamed with lemon and was AMAZING!). I also had shrimp khao soy and Tony had an order of seafood with flat noodles. I can't recall if I had mentioned it before, but we discovered that squid tastes incredible in Thailand, and we tried to have it as much as we could. And of course, we had to finish with some mango sticky rice - here I think we had the biggest mango to sticky rice serving so far!

On our last day in Chiang Mai, we decided we should visit the Doi Suthep Temple on the mountain overlooking the city. The spot for the temple was chosen many years ago, apparently by sending an elephant (believed to be holy) up the mountain and the site was chosen where-ever the elephant stopped. Honestly, after going to Angkor Wat and seeing the fantastic temples in Bangkok, we didn't expect to be overwhelmed by this temple, but what we did experience was Sunday worship. It was fun to experience the lively and festive crowds. After visiting the temple in the morning, we went to an afternoon cooking class at Smart Cook. Chiang Mai is known for its many cooking classes and schools - the one I had originally read up on at the Four Seasons was ridiculously expensive but we wanted to have th experience anyhow. Smart Cook was a good choice for us, it is a quaint teak house with a garden kitchen (we each had our own cooking station) and prep area - perfect for a small group. We started with a market tour, and because Tony and I were starving, the lovely owner stopped to pick up some fresh pork and red bean buns for us. These were seriously some of the best buns I have ever had! The market was an essential part of the cooking class, our teacher told us about the different vegetables that make up the lovely fragrant flavours of Thai food (and finally we learned what some of the mysterious vegetables we had seen in our food!). Did you know there are some 6 or 7 types of eggplant? And the only one they DO NOT cook with are the ones we have in North America! I think a cooking class without the market tour would be a real miss. The class was intimate and lovely, we each got to choose 4 dishes to make. I made tom ka gai soup, pad thai, green curry (from scratch!) and mango sticky rice. Tony made shrimp tom yum soup, cashew chicken, red curry and spring rolls. The class gave us an even deeper appreciation for Thai cooking - it is always made to individual servings with fresh ingredients. We ate what we made, and it was delicious (whew!). It was kind of fool proof to be honest! There are also full-day classes available but the half day was already a full experience for me.

We had our last meal in Chiang Mai at Huen Phen,
a restaurant in an old northern Thai house decorated with an abundance of cultural artifacts. We had Burmese spicy pork, which was quite good but was kind of like spicy bolognaise. We also had banana flower and pork rib soup - which was spicy although it did not look it. It reminded me of clear Chinese pork bone soup with some spiciness from Thai vegetables. Although spicy I couldn't get enough! We also had a unique papaya salad with local salty crab - it was a very different mix of flavours, salty, sweet and sour at the same time. Finally, we finished with a young coconut sorbet and Chinese grass jelly - both perfectly refreshing for the end of a hot day. On a side note, the funny thing about all the spicy food is that because it is made fresh, our stomachs never got upset - it is all very "clean" flavours!

We really loved our short stay in Chiang Mai and would happily go back again. The night bazaar was fantastic itself - everything was cheaper AND nicer than other markets we had been (Chiang Mai is an artisan center!), and we also braved the Saturday and Sunday markets with the locals, which seemed to go on forever and were PACKED. We thought we'd be "done" with markets, but each are different in some way and have a different feel and character to them. The markets of Chiang Mai had great finds for half of what you'd find even at the night bazaar, and good food! We picked up some great items like bamboo placemats and silk pillow cases for a mere fraction of what we'd have to pay here in Canada....all well made and beautiful. Chiang Mai is definitely worth a visit if you are going to Thailand - we have no regrets skipping the beaches of the south and making our way North to this lovely city instead!

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