50 Before 50: City #2: Chiang Mai, oh Mai

50 Before 50: City #2 Chiang Mai 

img_5008Subtitle: How I Became Obsessed with Mango Sticky Rice and Rotis While Planning Entire Days Around Food and Animals

Before we continue with this project, I should point out that each post is going to feel different in structure. Some posts might be steeped in current and ancient historical facts along with some narrative. Some might be a “what to do when you visit” lists,  if the city calls for it. Some might be jaded social commentary laced with existential crisis. Some might be letters to my pet Chihuahua, Elphaba. Who knows. As Bowie said, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.”

This post is going to be 45% food, 45% animals, and 10% anecdotes on foot massages. If you have never taken a vacation that revolves around food, animals, and massages, please do so at your earliest convenience.

But first, after the crazy existence that is Bangkok, let’s take a breather and get settled in Chiang Mai. While Bangkok practically begs you to burn the candle at both ends and debauch yourself, Chiang Mai is an extremely polite Thai side-eyeing going, “Dude. Relax. You’re in Thailand.” The city is tooted by many as a sort of hippyish-but-happening spiritual enclave especially popular with backpackers and digital nomads, and I can see why.  Not only is the core of the city itself is supremely walkable and way less intimidating than Bangkok, it is spilling over with great places to eat and dive bars to entertain on the cheap. Besides the over half dozen awesome cafes perfect for working, I found a used book store run by an Irish expat, a few yoga studios, and a Prince-themed bar named Purple Rain, so, it’s pretty much my perfect city. It’s also a great base for some amazing day trips.

Spoiler: Elephants and hedgehogs ahead!

After the entertaining, but long, overnight train from Bangkok, I arrive in Chiang Mai as the sun is rising. Even at this hour, the bus station is bustling and the whole city seems to have a nice “quiet bustle” as my friend Rozanne and I decide to term it. There is enough going on for a city girl like me to keep from going stir crazy, but allows, in fact, demands you to take a day or two to do nothing but walk and eat. Old Town (the ‘downtown’ area in the shape of a square of about 1.5km x 1.5 km)  is a maze of tiny, winding roads and alleyways that let you get lost without ever feeling lost. In fact, sometimes it’s the wrong turns that yield the greatest treasures. It was mindless meandering like that that led my friends, Rozanne and Gabe, and I to a dive bar named “Fat Elvis”, which had a pool table and open karaoke starting in 15 minutes. Fast forward one hour to Rozanne singing “These Boots Are Made For Walking” with me singing a timid, but willing, back up. 

Before Thailand, I had never seen a place where so much eating and living happens on the sidewalks. You’ve most likely eaten outside before, maybe even at a ‘sidewalk cafe’ of sorts. Imagine these ‘sidewalk cafes’ every ten feet serving delicious food made right in front of you out of a makeshift set up of a burner and pan or grill. Then you sit at mismatched plastic tables and chairs right on the sidewalk. Oh, and this all happens within INCHES of cars and scooters zooming by. The sharing and experiencing of mealtimes is big here, and it is wonderful.  And, oh, the night markets. I have a friend who says he still dreams about the night markets in Chiang Mai, and I totally get it.

I arrive with 5 days of flying solo until my friend, Rozanne, joins me and within 36 hours, my time starts slipping into a nice routine of late breakfast/coffee, followed by a couple hours of wandering around the town in different directions, popping into whatever temples I happened to pass. By late afternoon, I make my way back to the hotel to rest/read/work for an hour or so, but really I am just killing time until the night markets open up.

Jammed with unique and homemade and local wares to buy, as well as a variety of foods from corn on the cob to fried squid on a stick, the night markets are an experience unto their own. Although the biggest market of the week in Chiang Mai is held every Sunday night and involves shutting down a big chunk of main streets in the middle of Old Town, you can find a market any night of the week. Besides being entertaining and cheap, it’s a time for the neighbors to some out and socialize. It’s a beautiful ritual, and one that I think other societies (lookin’ at you, ‘Merica) could learn from.

Walking around these nightly neighborhood gatherings, I was struck with the realization that I knew not one of my neighbor’s names back home. It is said that socializing and connecting with others is vital to good mental and physical health. Humans are a social species. We need each other for emotional and physical survival. My mother and her man, Ralph, are lucky to have a core group of a dozen or so friends that get together regularly, and I think that is fabulous.

Maybe it’s time for more block parties where cell phones are banned. The sooner we figure out that. not only are we all in this together, but that we need each other, the better.

But back to food and the sticky rice addiction that would begin to define my days.

Yes, I had street side mango sticky rice in Bangkok, but the best is at Kat’s Korner in Chiang Mai. I swear they put something in it. This is where I would really try to use the fanciest words in the English language to describe it or maybe an Italian hand gesture related to food, but instead, just imagine the best sex you’ve ever had.

This mango sticky rice is better.

The mango needs no explaining or embellishment. But the sticky rice. Oh, the sticky rice. It’s a warm, white sweet rice made with sugar and coconut milk. It’s then paired with mango and most often served and typically consumed as a dessert, but I really think this is doing the dish a disservice. The mango sticky rice is an all day treat. Need a little bite to eat with your morning coffee? Mango sticky rice! Missed lunch and need a 3pm pick me up? Mango sticky rice! Gluttonusly full with pants bursting after a huge serving of Pad Thai? Must have mango sticky rice!

I tell another friend, Gabe, who happened to be traveling through, to meet Rozanne and I for dinner at Kat’s Korner the night he arrives. I do not disclose that this dish is the sole purpose for my third visit in six days. There’s no preparing for life-changing moments. They just have to be experienced.

“Oh my god,” he says, through the first bite, eyes bugging out cartoon-like. “That is [insert your favorite superlative here]”

The point is not what he says. The point is how the mango sticky rice makes you feel: like you know there must be a magical realm beyond this physical plane because there is no way a mere mortal crafted this morsel of divine-ness and in no way does humanity deserve mango sticky rice or dolphins, but exist they do.

Editor’s Note: the author may or may not have returned home to discover she gained weight from said sticky rice and beer, despite walking 5 miles a day. This revelation was followed with an ensuing meltdown and phone call to her mother.

Let’s let the mango sticky rice settle as we move on to our first animals: guinea pigs and hedgehogs!

I did not know how much the world needed a cafe where you can eat waffles and play with hedgehogs and guinea pigs until I learned about Harinezumi Cafe. In case it matters, yes, harinezumi means “hedgehog” in Japanese. For about $9, you can get a big waffle with fruit plus coffee AND unlimited play time with your own hedgehog and a pen of guinea pigs. One of our hedgehogs was named “Salt and Pepper,” which I decided to take as a nod to the 90’s rap group, not it’s white and black coloring.

A few notes: you can’t really snuggle hedgehogs. You can, however, wear thick gloves to pick them up as they try to curl up into a little ball in your hand, seeing as they’re nocturnal and you’re totally interrupting their beauty sleep. They might look at you with their adorable little face with its long, pinocchio-like nose like, “dude. I was having a killer dream.” You also get to feed them dead worms with chopsticks, which, to be honest, is more stressful than fun.

The cafe also has around a dozen guinea pigs, summoned out of their cozy den by thumping and russling a bunch of leafy greens. Like a parade of fluffy, skittish but inquiring soldiers, the guinea pigs marched one by one over a small ramp from their beds to a play area in the middle, for maximum carousing for them and gawking for us humans.

If you have a couple hours to fill, it was a delightful way to spend the morning. Now, back to food.

The roti is, for lack of a better compound noun, handmade heaven. A pan-fried bread of Muslim origin, watching the process of a roti being made is part of, I think, what makes it so delicious. You will not find a roti in any restaurant. This dessert is only available, like many of Thailand’s culinary treasures, by traveling food stand. The set up is minimal. You just need a bucket for the golf-ball sized single servings of the dough, a pan, and supply of a few other ingredients. One serving at a time, as orders are placed, a small ball of dough is gently thrown down and hand tossed  until it resembles an uncooked pizza crust. The dough is then delicately placed in the heated pan. Add butter as the dough is slowly cooking. Offerings for the main ingredient are limited: typically egg or banana. For me, it’s banana. The banana is sliced and placed on the dough. Then, after a couple more minutes, the sides are folded up to make a neat square. This square is then turned over and cooked just a smidge more, until ever-so-slightly brown. Remove from pan, cut twice in each direction to make 9 equal squares. Top with a drizzle of Nutella and condensed sweet milk. Prepare to be ruined for life.

The best way to work of those calories? Play with elephants!

Easily one of the highlights of the trip was, after thorough vetting to make sure the place was ethical, a day spent and Happy Elephant Home. City streets faded into lush green landscapes as we make our way about 90 minutes into the mountains. Happy Elephant Home is sanctuary to four adult elephants, and super-friendly 3 year-old elephant.

The day starts with getting up close and personal with them while feeding them bananas and sugar cane. One of the adult elephants, Liam, is practically blind in the right eye, but gentle as a feather. Our guide explains that the reason Liam is blind in the right side is because he used to be a riding elephant, and, since most people are right handed, the handler/rider struck him on the right side, to make him move, near his eye, which eventually caused blindness. I think of my three-legged rescue chihuahua back home and how she had arrived at the shelter needing an amputation of her front right leg because of mistreatment by a human. I feed Liam some more sugar cane and slowly pet his thick, prickly trunk as he munches, hoping desperately that at 45 years old, he has found some peace and contentment. His good eye is piercing and aware, though still laced with a twinge of residual sadness. I try to infuse every stroke of his trunk with kindness and tenderness.

Nearby, the three-year old is brazenly, but playfully, fishing food out of the buckets of the unsuspecting, managing to pluck out the sugar cane and throw unripe bananas to the ground in the most adorable tantrum. Truly, a soul inhabits animals as it does humans.

The last ten percent of this blog is two short anecdotes about two different reflexology foot massage experiences I had while in Chiang Mai, one at a luxury spa, the other on the side of the road at a street market, because, when in Rome.

Reflexology is a method of bodywork dating back to ancient Egypt and China that involves applying moderate pressure to specific points on the feet thought to correspond to certain organs and systems (respiratory, endocrine, etc) in the body. Think of a reflexology session like a really intense foot rub. It’s not entirely relaxing, but can be revealing.

Anecdote one takes place in a wonderful spa during a private reflexology foot massage session. Calming, otherworldly music is playing and the lights are low. I am lying flat on a supremely comfortable futon-like cushion. An eye mask drowns out any remaining light. Again, though reflexology massages are not ‘gentle’ persay, they are generally thought to be enjoyable. So, it comes as a surprise to the massage therapist when, as she is targeting a certain point in the ball of my right foot, I wince. She backs off, then presses again. And again, I wince. She then says, with a bit of concern, “you heart is hurting.”

*A google search of “reflexology foot images”  later does, indeed, confirm that she had been applying pressure to the area of the right foot that is said to correspond to the heart.

I resist the urge to laugh out loud., mainly because this did not surprise me at all. If you know me well, you might be aware of my checkered and complicated cardiological past. I didn’t have the Thai to communicate “yes, I’ve had two open heart surgeries and have some mitral valve regurgitation,” so I just smile and nod slightly, hoping I’m not causing her too much alarm.

Anecdote two takes place post-dinner during the Sunday night market. Rozanne, Gabe, and I have just finished dinner and some shopping at the market when we decide to get massages. After settling back into the comfortable lounge chair, I am about to close my eyes and access my own inner garden of peace when, two minutes in, the lady starting my massage eyes me and my midsection and says “You baby?” Feeling the faintest of hotness encroaching on my cheeks, I glance at my stomach. Ok, so, maybe I have the tiniest of food babies?

As a woman, it’s scaring enough to be mistaken as pregnant when one is not, it’s a whole other hellscape to have it happen in front of a cute guy.

This is where I quit mango sticky rice cold turkey. Thank you and good night.

Coming Soon: City #3: Chiang Rai and the White and Blue Temples


Bangkok: the first 48 hours

City #1 of 50 before 50: Bangkok

It is said that, after a crime is committed, the first 48 hours are the most critical in terms of trying to solve the case. This feels apt. I feel like if anything nefarious is going to happen in Bangkok, it will be within my first 48 hours there.

img_4525Hour 0

The sun is setting amongst some clouds as I exit the airport to find my Grab car (Grab is like Lyft/Uber for Thailand). My stomach rumbles slightly, not from want of food, but as it always does whenever I first get to a new place and realize that I cannot speak a word of the language. Not only that, but, while Thai is a gorgeous language to look at, I have not even a grasp of how to pronounce anything. At least with the romance languages, I may not know what I am saying, but my American mouth and brain can at least may any attempt at sounding out a word, no matter how much I butcher it. 

It takes about 50 minutes for a $14 dollar ride to my hotel. The highways give way to narrower, noisier, busier streets spilling over with people, motor cycles, pink taxis (I love this) and tuk-tuks, which is the Thai version of a pedicab, but motorized.

It turns out that I’m staying on the Bourbon Street of Bangkok. That is to say the noisiest and one of the most touristy streets in the city. I both love and hate this. While I love that Khao San road is fairly central and within walking distance of many attractions, it’s also one long block of bars, restaurants, clubs, massage places, and souvenir shops. In other words, it’s backpacker mecca and likes to party until 3am, as I found out the first night while falling to sleep to the melodic thrum of a deep and never-ending bass beat.

Hour 3

Khao San Road is filthy, seedy, unkempt, and completely alive with flesh and neon and noise and vices just waiting to bubble up. It’s amazing. It’s a huge, crazy, nonstop block party – like Mardi Gras in New Orleans without floats and beads . Restaurant vendors call out, trying to entice foreign customers, sometimes shoving handmade boards in faces advertising beer, buckets of liquor and laughing gas. Makeshift food stands, which are little more than portable, rusted-out barbeque stands also clog the street with all kinds of made-as-you-wait pad thais, fried rice dishes, coconut ice creams and satays (meats on a stick).

I wander the street a couple of minutes before I hear an acoustic version of a Lady Gaga song wafting from a place whose ceiling is adorned with upside down umbrellas and falling twinkle lights. This will do for my first night. After procuring a local beer and spring rolls, I engage in one of my favorite activities: people watching.

There are the twenty-something backpackers straight from the airport sporting the standard-issues oversized backpack on their backs. There are the Chinese and Japanese with the selfie sticks. There are the empty-nest Western couples in khaki shorts and tropical prints, the kind of couples I imagine who decided to come to Thailand, at the suggestion of a therapist perhaps, to “spice things up” and “have an adventure.” There are the chain-smoking Europeans. Bangkok welcomes all, but it does not let you relax. You don’t come to Bangkok to relax. It puts every kind of vice and desire and freedom at your curious fingertips and let’s you decide your fate. It’s a 3D technicolored “choose your own adventure” book come to life.

Hour 17

The next morning, I walk the little over 1 mile to the Grand Palace, one of the “must dos.” Built in 1792, it was the private residence of the kings of Siam and Thailand until 1925, as well as the administrative center of the monarchy.

Situated on the riverfront of the Bangkok river, the compound stretches on forever and consists of a number of buildings, sprawling and picturesque courtyards made for the IG and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, which is noted as the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. Eye-popping and humbling, I spent a good 2 hours imaging a past life where I was the daughter of the king of Siam frolicking in the bonsai trees in the garden and drinking from petit, golden goblets. I was addressed as “Princess” and drifted to sleep in an insanely ornate four-poster bed. Who knows, maybe Anna Leonowens was even my governess.

The opulence and grandeur of the buildings when viewed from afar is hard to describe, but I noticed that, as I got up close to some of the mosaic-like hand-constructed structures, the effect was changed.  I call it the Monet effect. Monet was a French impressionist painter. When viewed from a distance, his paintings are dreamy and romantic images of people and landscapes. Up close, the paintings sometimes look like a muddle of harried brush strokes. Only up close could I detect and appreciate the flaws of the imperfectly cut tiles and not-quite-symmetrical patterns. The flaws have always been and will always be there, but that doesn’t make the structure any less beautiful. 

Early evening finds me back near my hotel where I grab a Singha beer and some fried rice before retiring early to sleep off some jet lag. I manage to drift in and out of sleep through the massive street party going on outside until it stops around 2:30 and I fall like a lead weight into a deep sleep.

Hour 30

There is a vast difference between the motorcycle culture of the US and the motorcycle culture here in Thailand. Sure, motorcycles are obviously modes of transport, but in the US, bikes are also considered a kind of status symbol and identity. In Thailand, motorcycles are 100% practicality and 0% testosterone. Their mission is simple: to get through the clogged traffic fast and with laser-like precision. The humble Thais would probably look at a pimped out American Harley and laugh in amusement. Practicality and simplicity rule when it comes to motorcycles here.

Grab is like the Uber and Favor of Thailand combined where you can hail a car or a bike, as well as order food to be delivered. I had used a Grab car to get from the airport (swift and easy), but I had not noticed the “Bike” option.

Since my destination was only a few miles away (not too far, but too far for me to walk in the heat), I opted for the “Bike” option and was soon whizzing through Bangkok on the back of a small Honda scooter. And these guys are good. Expertly adept at weaving in and out, these guys are the quickest way to get anywhere. They treat lanes more as a suggestion than rule, sometimes, and love to weave through cars stopped at a light so that they are in the front and among the first to hit the gas.

I summon a bike and, within minutes, am happily zipping in and out of chaotic traffic though the city. There seems to be an unwritten traffic agreement between motorcycles and cars here: if you’re in a car, just drive normally; the motorcycle will find the spaces to weave in and out. Like water flowing around rocks, the motorcycles will rush around you, but will keep flowing. Just drive. 

Sorry, mom and dad, but if you’re flying solo, this is the best, quickest and most economical way to get around. It’s a way to feel a little bit cooler without going full biker chick. And speaking of biker chicks, some of the women here opt to ride side-saddle, perching one and a half butt cheeks on the seat behind the driver and barely bothering to hang on (in fact, they are usually holding something in one hand) as the driver zips along. And just when I thought that was badass, along comes a family of four on the same bike – 2 adults sandwiching 2 kids my nephew and nieces ages. All without helmets. This is just the way it is here.

But there’s more. Soon, along comes the motorcycle carrying a dog whose two front paws are perched on the handlebars right next to the driver, standing up on their hind legs. And loving every wind-swept moment. 

While I might never be cool enough to ride side-saddle, there is sometime deliciously and soulfully free about riding on the back of a motorcycle in a foreign city driven by a guy whose name you do not know and speaks two words of English. 

Hours 30 – 47 in bullet points

  • Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho – the Mona Lisa of Bangkok – a gigantic golden statue of the Buddha resting on his right side, and said to have been his posture as he awaited death and about to enter the parinirvana (the “death after nirvanah”). Though this is a must see while in Bangkok, it is touristy. In a related note: I loath selfie sticks in public places.
  • Squids, scorpions and other assorted bugs on sticks
  • Full-sized crocodile being cooked rotisserie style and sliced like turkey
  • Monks in a tuk-tuk
  • Western dude in tank top on Khao San Road slyly tucking a bill into the top of a waitress as she sets down a yardstick-type device full of beer in front of him. She hurries to bow slightly enthusiastically a couple of times. I come to a full dead stop slack-jawed vacillating wildly between rage and befuddled amusement.

Hour 48

After a dinner of street satay and mango sticky rice, I follow the sounds of some live music and find myself in a second story bar overlooking Khao San Road. The drummer dangles a cigarette out of his mouth as he drums along to tunes like “Wonderwall” and “Take Me Home, Country Road.” It’s not long before a gent approaches asking if he can sit at empty place next to me. I motion for him to go right ahead.

His face appears to be Thai, though as soon as he speaks, it’s clear he was not raised Thailand. Turns out Colin is, indeed, of Thai background, but is also a full quarter Scottish and grew up in Scotland, which means it takes a few minutes to adjust to his charming brogue accent. He’s plays and teaches football (“real football, not American football”) and has a tattoo of the Thai flag on the back of his neck. We chat lightly for a bit. I learn he’s very anti-Brexit and just took a new job in Bangkok. He comes to the bar once a week for the music and sports a Rod Steward tee-shirt. A detail I don’t pick up on until the band starts playing “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” and he jumps up, yelling, “Ah, fuck yeah, Rod Stewart! He’s my favorite!”

And thus, with local Singha beer in hand, ends my first 48 hours in Bangkok.

Next: City # 2 – Ayutthaya