Tuesday 4 June 2019

Thailand, Chiang Mai - Spring 2019

Captain Carp
Sunday, 7 April

Who is this Captain Carp and why is everybody talking about him?!

There are few countries that I have chosen to holiday in twice, but having only seen the beaches and small islands of Thailand I feel like I was missing out on true Thai culture.  Flight tickets to Chiang Mai were also really cheap...  an amazing AirBnB with a swimming pool split 6 ways was pretty cheap too!

It was just the 3 of us boys for the first 2 days and so we tried to minimise our activities to things that the girls would probably not want to do or things that we would happily do again.  Full body Thai massage anyone? Twice?  The first one was at Lily's Massage on our first day to help us ease into our holiday.  The second one was in a woman's prison... actually, full on inside the prison bars! It being a prison we weren't allowed to take anything inside but we managed to snap this shot of us looking like prisoners before we went in.  Given that a Thai massage can often feel like getting beaten up at the best of times we were not surprisingly nervous about getting the same treatment from prisoners.  There was no need to be nervous; they were all super friendly and the massage was awesome.  It really was a great experience and we left feeling like we were supporting a worthy cause.

We got the early plane mainly because we wanted to see the Walking Street Market which only opens on a Sunday evening.  It is an enormous market that covers several streets selling all sorts of food and nik-naks.  If we limited the market to have zero repeated stalls then it would probably fit on one street but where's the fun in that?  The "flash mob" of when everyone stood still for the National flag to come down was interesting.  My first proper Thai meal here was what I would call my favourite salad in the entire world with Myanmar's Green Tea Salad coming a close second.  Som Tam is fresh raw papaya that is shredded and mixed with raw green beans and maybe a few bits of carrot and tomato here and there.  Most importantly is the raw garlic and however many fresh chilli's you are willing to brave.  The chilli and garlic are pounded in a wooden mortar with ingredients methodically added every few bashes.  Nowhere will you find a more perfect balance of salt, sweet, hot and sour.  The market doesn't break the mould of your standard Asian night market but it's an interesting thing to do for an evening.  I bought nothing but food which suited me just fine.

The trick to a proper chill-out holiday is planning 1 activity a day and having the rest of the day taken up by waking up late, sleeping on a flamingo lilo in the pool, massages and maybe even some gaming on the Switch that we brought with us.  No matter what, the day must finish with a nice meal and somewhere we can have a drink outside.  The brain knows that if you have a beer in hand and your outside then you must be on holiday.  Monday's activity was Prison massage and evening beer was on the Walking Street market - though I must point out that drinking whilst walking was strictly forbidden.  We sat at a small bar owned by an old transgender lady who you just knew had a fascinating life story.  Not that any of us dared to ask about it.

Tuesday's activity was an evening cooking class with Thai Akha Cooking School.  This being our activity, our nice meal AND our evening outdoor beer all in one I didn't actually leave the house for most of the day.  In fact the above picture represents my day pretty well.  The cooking course was brilliant.  I did a Thai cooking class last time I was in Thailand but Northern Thai food seems so different.  I learnt a lot about the Akha people from our main host and enjoyed that we all got to pick what we wanted to cook from a list.  Having done cooking classes in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand I can tell you the number one rule in all South East Asian cooking... Blenders are for wimps.  They seem to swear by using a pestle and mortar over a blender and not just so they can make their cooking course last a little longer.  You couldn't possibly put all 10 ingredients required for a green curry paste into a blender.  You must add them one by one and bash them with your pestle (or mortar?  I'm not sure which is which... but you'll get the same result either way!).  I have read people say that you can taste the care that has gone into the curry which I do like the idea of.  I also like the idea of using a blender and then saying I slaved for hours over my pestle and mortar.  You will still taste the care that went into it even if it's a lie.

Wednesday's activity was by far the most incredible activity of the trip.  One that I had to research a lot in order to find an ethical day with Elephants.  Clearly the Social Media train hit hard here as all the brochures confirmed and double confirmed "no riding" and "no hook" and 100% rescued elephants.  The one I booked did not say any of this but the online reviews more than confirmed that the Karen's Tribe Native Elephants were possibly the happiest elephants in Chiang Mai.  Our guide, a local Karen tribesman, was very honest with us from the start - these were not rescue elephants.  Elephants are part of the Karen tribe's daily life and treated very much like a member of their family.  The tribe had owned this family of elephants for many generations and knew absolutely everything about them.  They compared it to owning horses and how there is absolutely nothing wrong with riding these elephants.  These elephants are not wild and so the infamous "Elephant Crushing" that goes around on social media is not a thing for an elephant born into the tribe.

Each pair was assigned an elephant to look after for the day; mine was called Melanjai (most definitely spelt incorrectly) and he was awesome.  Their baby elephant was called David and the tribe explained that he was fearless and just wanted to treat you like his elephant friend and so be prepared to be headbutted and barged every now and then.  We started by putting on some Karen Tribe outfits so the Elephants recognised us and then to make the Elephants like us we fed them two entire buckets of banana, sugar cane and what seemed like a full tree's worth of leaves.  Me and Melanjai were like this *crosses index and middle finger* within the first hour.  Next up was giving Melanjai a wash in the stream using the soapy bark of a special tree.  This is when the guide told me to climb up on it's back to scrub his head and so I nervously climbed up - managed to sneak in a few hugs whilst scrubbing his head, Melanjai was loving it!

Lunch was in the Karen's tribes village which was a short elephant ride away.  No guide required to lead an elephant that has grown up with humans.  I just jumped up on its back and it followed the rest of the elephants.  The only indication to me that he knew I was on his back was him lifting his trunk up to me every now and then for me to pass him a banana.  Lunch was super tasty and filling and then we had a final couple of hours to make elephant medicine (in an elephant sized pestle and mortar of course...) and hug our elephants goodbye.  At the end we even got a CD with high quality photos that one of the guides had been taking throughout the day.  For free!?  No picture or review will explain how wonderful this day was.  Hanging out with the elephants was of course incredible but hanging with the lovely tribe really added to the amazing day.

One epic day followed by another as I had booked myself on to a full day of fishing.  Nobody else fancied it so it was just me and the fishing guide - a new friend for the day.  I read that you could half the price if you went to the fishing spots yourself but the convenience was far better with a guide.  I had a morning fishing in a stocked lake for giant catfish followed by an afternoon fishing in a reservoir for giant Snakeheads.  I caught 6 catfish in a morning which means it is a very well stocked lake!  Many fishermen would turn their noses up at this but not I...  it was exhilarating every time my rod went.  These fish were enormous, easily the biggest fish I have ever caught.  A Chinese man next to me had his entire rod taken in a blink of an eye.  What was crazy is that the last fish I caught brought his rod along with it!  He was very grateful.  The reservoir fishing was also pretty cool even if the fish were not nearly as big.  The fact that they had teeth and were called Snakefish was enough to keep my adrenaline pumping when I hooked one.  I got so close to catching a great big momma too and have actual video evidence so you know that genuinely the biggest fish did really get away!  I could have cried.

We ate at Dash! (I'm not shouting, there's actually an exclamation point in the name) that evening and I sampled the amazing Khao Soi; a dish created here in Chiang Mai.  It is a steaming bowl of creamy coconut chicken curry with noodles and a whole bunch of small side plates to make your dish as spicy, sweet or sour as you want.  I threw it all in and didn't regret it.  Dash! was the number 1 hit on Trip Adviser and I definitely recommend a visit.  It is in a nice area for pre and post drinks too so easy to make an evening of it.  Just as we were about to head home we found a vendor of possibly the best dish in the entirety of Thai Cuisine - Mango Sticky Rice!  There is something so inexplicably comforting about the combination of 3 very simple ingredients.  Warm rice steamed in coconut milk along side cool, perfectly ripe fresh mango, drizzled with sweetened, condensed coconut cream.  It is absolute heaven that is uncontrollably devoured in seconds.  After a 10 hour fishing day, this was everything I needed in an evening out!

For our final day we had lunch at "Nun's Restaurant" which is a sweet little concept though none of us were overly impressed with the food.  Nun is the chef, waitress and owner who simply enjoys cooking and wanted to share that with everyone.  My Pad Thai was a bit over cooked and stodgy; the outcome of trying fry several portions of Pad Thai in one pan.  I made the mistake of looking over curiously at the plate of bugs being eaten on another table and so Nun brought us our very own plate of bugs. For free!  I was picking hard, spiky bug legs out of my teeth for hours.  One last Lily's Massage followed by a stroll around Ploen Ruedee Night Market finished our final day.  Ploen Ruedee night market feels quite different to the other famous ones and a nice change of atmosphere.  Food was very good too as I shared an enormous seafood medley followed by yet another mango sticky rice.

Being in Thailand (or anywhere in South East Asia for that matter) and not seeing the sea certainly felt a bit strange.  But, where else can you eat your meal and have a fish foot spa at the same time?!  Where else can you get massaged in a real life prison? Where else can you catch a giant catfish and hug an elephant in 24 hours? Only in Northern Thailand!  What Chiang Mai is lacking in a beach it more than makes up for in culture and incredibly unique experiences.