Sunday, 30 June 2013

A Weekend in Chiang Mai

At a temple in Chiang Mai
A few weekends ago, some of my friends and I decided to take a break from the routine that we have so easily slipped into in Bangkok to travel to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is one of Thailand's largest cities, second only to Bangkok, and came highly recommended by those who had been there before. We wrapped up work on a Friday evening, and headed over to Hua Lamphong station to board our overnight train to Chiang Mai. 
At least a couple of members of our motley crew were somewhat wary of the train journey, not knowing what to expect. Fortunately for us, the journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai ended up being a memorable one. Not long after we boarded the train, we discovered a carriage twinkling with fairy lights, reverberating with dance beats, with a bar and tables and chairs arranged restaurant style. Unsurprisingly, the seats were all occupied, so we watched a day in Bangok's life go by through the windows, shouting at each other to be heard over the din of the train wheels. As other trains - far more crowded and far less inviting than ours - passed by, it became evident that ours was a special train catering to tourists who wouldn't mind paying a little extra for little comforts.
When we returned to our carriage, a member of the staff made our beds for us, which we gratefully climbed into. Every berth came with curtains that could be drawn all the way, so that each of us had a little private enclave to ourselves for the night. Rocked to sleep with the rhythm of the train, I slept even better than I usually do. In the morning, we woke up to see green fields and coconut trees, thatched huts and banana palms pass us by. As we had been warned, our train arrived in Chiang Mai a couple of hours behind schedule. Still, we had had a very comfortable and pleasant journey into Chiang Mai and that was enough. The journey, as they say, is the reward.     
Figurines of monks
 Although we had been told that Chiang Mai tends to be cooler than Bangkok, we were greeted by scorching heat as we left the train station. We spent the afternoon temple hopping. If their temples are anything to go by, the Thai people have a fondness for gold. The temples we visited were exquisitely ornate and golden on the outside, which struck me as ironic given the austerity preached by Buddhism and exemplified by the lives of Buddhist monks. Despite the buzz of tourists outside, the temples each exuded a sense of calm as we walked in. At one, a friend and I received blessings from a Buddhist monk. He chanted softly as he tied a piece of white thread around our wrists. If I had to point to a single instance when the elementary Sanskrit that I struggled with in middle school came in handy, it would be those few moments inside a temple in Chiang Mai. As we walked away, I was happy that I was able to decipher some bits and pieces of the Buddhist chants that we had just heard.
Chiang Mai's food scene is every bit as exciting as Bangkok's. During our time there, we had some delicious (if spicy) Thai food both at sit down restaurants and at the city's night market. Like night markets in Bangkok, Chiang Mai's night market offers a dazzling array of food and shopping. Restrained by the size of my travel case, I chose not to indulge the hidden shopper inside me, and took in the sights and sounds around me instead. Chiang Mai has a much more relaxed and laidback vibe to it than Bangkok does. Despite the heat, we enjoyed walking through its streets, undisturbed by persistent and noisy traffic.    
On our second day in Chiang Mai, some of us decided to try out a half day Thai cooking class. We spent some time in the local market, wandering around wide-eyed, as our guide introduced us to key ingredients in Thai cooking. We also took a brief tour of a little garden behind the cooking school, listening to introductions about the herbs, vegetables and the dreaded chillies that are central to Thai cuisine.
An exciting start to the cooking class

At the local market
Ingredients for a Thai red curry
Finally, we spent a few fruitful hours chopping, grinding, frying and stirring, in the process of putting together an enviable collection of Thai dishes including pad thai, som tum (papaya salad) and Thai red curry. We ate what we cooked, and left just after lunch with lessons in Thai cooking and full stomachs.
We spent our last evening in Chiang Mai at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep ("wat" is Thai for temple), a temple just outside the city. We climbed the hundreds of steps to the temple, arriving in time to watch the monks chant as the sun descended on Chiang Mai. A memorable end to a memorable trip.    
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Chatuchak and other things

Chatuchak market

In my last couple of weeks in Bangkok, I have a learnt a thing or two about Thai food. For one, the food is significantly spicier than I expected it to be, and certainly spicier than the food that I have eaten at Thai restaurants outside Thailand.

When I think about Thai food, the images that come to mind are those of gentle red and green curries, sweet from the flavour of coconut milk, and of the many servings of pad thai - salty, sweet and sour all at the same time- that I ate at a popular lunchtime stall in London's Whitecross Street on much deserved breaks from drafting legal documents.

My time in Bangkok has been a rude eye-opener in that sense. On at least a few occasions, I enthusiastically dived into my food only to discover that the spice level was too much for me, yes, even for me, with my spice-friendly South Indian genes. Once I had cooled myself down with a few glasses of water, and the smoke had stopped billowing from my ears, I would poke around in my food to investigate the source of the heat. Invariably, I would find flecks of the deadly bird's eye chilli floating around in my plate. They are ubiquitous in Kerala, and on my last visit, I spotted several little plants sprouting bright red chillies in my aunt's garden. In my family, we treat them with the respect that they deserve, and use them cautiously in our food. The Thai people on the other hand, seem to thumb their noses at the species, throwing them liberally into anything they cook.

Dried fish at Chatuchak
On a more pleasant note, exotic and delicious fruits are everywhere in Bangkok. There are little carts dotted across the city selling everything from juicy mangosteen to hairy rambutan and crunchy rose apple. There is also an impressive selection of drinks on offer that I hadn't come across before I arrived here. I have had a long standing weakness for sweet Thai iced tea, which I guiltily order at Thai restaurants, fully aware of the alarming quantities of rich, sweet condensed milk that are used in making my drink. Although I have yet to overcome my weakness for Thai iced tea, I have been introduced to a much wider variety of drinks here that I promise to cover in another post.  

Bangkok has an equally impressive variety of desserts to offer. So far, of the many options at hand, I have tried coconut milk ice-cream and mangoes with sticky rice, both of which made me go weak in the knees. I can already see war with the weighing scales on the horizon.
Over the weekend, I was at Chatuchak market, which is supposedly the world's largest outdoor weekend market. There, I spotted stalls selling packets of sliced mango with sticky rice. In few other cities have I seen such delicious dessert being sold on the streets. As part of their marketing efforts, the vendors each had a large mango strapped to their foreheads with string. Sadly, our taxi was weaving in and out of traffic too quickly for me to capture their innovative marketing in action.

Pineapple rice buried insde...
Although the street food was all very tempting, it was far too hot for us to eat outside. We sought refuge in an air conditioned restaurant in one of Chatuchak's many alleyways. I was feeling unusually adventurous and decided to give myself a break from the usual, opting for the exotic sounding nam phrik with ground pork. When our food arrived, my friend dived in with gusto into her pineapple rice that came served in a large scooped out pineapple, whereas I discovered that nam phrik is simply a sour and spicy dip that comes served with sliced vegetables. If you have read at least a couple of posts on this blog, you may recollect that vegetables and I are not the best of friends. Besides, I am too accustomed to Indian food to consider any sort of salad to be a complete meal. My nam phrik platter did come with a piece of fried fish, but it was too oily and tasteless to compensate for the dish's fatal flaws. Needless to say, I was more than a little disappointed with my choice, and have resolved to maintain a safe distance from nam phrik for the remainder of my time in Bangkok.
Nam Phrik
We spent a few hours basking in the delights of Chatuchak market. Still, we barely scratched its surface. I have promised myself at least one more visit to Chatuchak before it is time to bid Bangkok goodbye.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Sawadee Kha

Noodle soup: my first meal in Bangkok
Sawadee kha! Hello from Bangkok. I am in Thailand this summer on a welcome break from classes, problem sets and exams, interning with the UN. I arrived at Suwannabhumi airport on a Sunday morning, tired and jet lagged, cringing at the thought of having to report to work the next day. I have now survived my first week, having overcome a particularly severe case of jet lag and succeeded at the seemingly impossible task of finding accommodation for my ten week stay during high season.

My biggest hurdle so far has been language. India’s British colonial history is an important reason why English is so widely spoken in the country today. Unlike India, Thailand was never subject to European colonial rule, let alone British rule, with the result that few people seem to understand or speak English. I have been struggling to communicate with the Thai people. On many days, I find myself gesturing wildly at some unsuspecting, perplexed Thai victim, using my face and hands to make my point heard. Their patience, smiles and willingness to help makes things better.

Attack on Sushi
The other day, I missed my shuttle bus to the UN, which is located right opposite a prominent boxing stadium. A little frazzled, I rushed downstairs from my room to catch a taxi. I tried everything.  “UN”, “United Nations”, “Boxing Stadium”, and “Rajadamnern Avenue” which is where the UN is located, all in my newly acquired Thai accent. Nothing worked. As a last resort, I mimed my best boxing mime for the driver’s benefit, hoping that it would culminate in a pleasant drive to the Boxing Stadium. Both drivers who were subject to this, unsurprisingly perhaps, shook their heads and sped off hastily, clearly wanting to avoid what must have seemed like a potentially violent Indian passenger. I asked front desk at my apartment building to intervene in my linguistic battles with the next driver, and of course, that worked like a charm.

I had equal difficulty buying toilet paper. None of my eloquent descriptions worked on the shop assistant. Finally, as a last resort, I drew a western closet with a toilet paper holder next to it on a little scrap of paper. That worked, and I was soon the happy owner of a new roll of the important stuff. I am not sure if I will be any more proficient in the Thai language than I was when I first arrived in Thailand. What I do know is that I will likely transform into a champion of both dumb charades and Pictionary.

KFC: Korean Fried Chicken
It is hotter at this time of year than I had expected, and certainly hotter than I would like. I find myself wilting on the street within minutes as I wait for a taxi, even at early hours of the morning. We have had slightly uncomfortable highs of around 35 degrees Celsius, prompting me to stay indoors until the weather is cool enough to explore the sights and sounds of the city.

The silver lining in all of this has undoubtedly been the food and the prices. Bangkok is the cheapest city I have ever been in. In many ways, it is significantly cheaper than many Indian cities. All of the food that I have tried in Bangkok so far has been of consistently high quality, all far more affordable than it would have been in cities that I have visited elsewhere. An all you can eat sushi buffet costs in one of Bangkok’s more upmarket districts costs around $10. Street vendors sell generous slices of the freshest watermelons, papayas and other favourite fruits of mine at under a dollar. You can quite easily buy a delicious meal from one of Bangkok’s many street vendors for the price of one dollar. 

The all you can eat sushi buffet, with drinks and dessert thrown in, was a particularly interesting experience. I was somewhat incredulous when I saw the price of the meal, even asking our waitress in disbelief, “How do you guys make money?”. Of course, this was Greek to her, and she just smiled politely. We were exactly an hour into our attack on sushi, leisurely dipping vegetables and meat into our sukiyaki pot, when we were interrupted mid-bite and politely informed that our hour long slot was up. And so our onward march was abruptly halted, their ingenious business model was revealed, and my incredulity was destroyed.

My room in Bangkok does not have a kitchen. Although I am delighted to rely on Bangkok’s delicious offerings for the next couple of months, this will mean that there will no recipe posts from me for a while. However, I fully intend to keep up a steady stream of chatter about Bangkok’s food scene. Stay tuned. :)