50 Before 50: City #2 Chiang Mai
Subtitle: 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