A big “Sawatdee Krap” from Thailand
It was back in March 2017, the 27th to be exact, that I was sat on the London underground on my way back from a meeting at Rhubarb Catering. Sat at the end of a carriage looking down the length, music in my ears but nothing else going on inside me except a hollow feeling.“I can’t do this, I can’t be here right now” I thought to myself. At that moment, I made the decision that I was going to go away and that it was going to be extraordinary.
9 month’s on and I’m currently writing this sat in a Thai café in the middle of Chiang Mai. My emotions are swelling as I think about it and I can feel tears of pride brewing in my eyes. The past 12-24 months have been HEAVY, as has the past week; it’s been a whirlwind.
I flew Wednesday 6th December and stayed at my folks after a final family dinner for the last night in the UK and headed to the airport first thing in the morning with my parents and everything I think I needed for the adventure of a lifetime.
Saying goodbye to my folks as I walked into security was very heavy, but as with everything, I knew this goodbye was only temporary and that what was to come will be extraordinary.
After a calming but much needed 10am Guinness in departures and a few phone calls letting people know I was leaving (I didn’t tell anyone before), I was on the plane.
As the plane hit the runway, I stared nervously excited out the window from my window seat, headphone’s in and a playlist on shuffle. As if I’d planned it, my ears were filled with ‘Learn to Fly’ – by the Foo Fighter’s, a top 10 of mine; the tears were going to come at some point right? I’m not entirely sure if they were tears of sadness, pride, excitement etc; all of the above I suspect. One thing is for sure, what is to come will quite possibly be the most incredible experience of my life and one that will probably have the most profound impact on the rest of my life. I’ll re-visit that statement a month or 2 down the line because who know’s what’s around the corner.
The feeling is indescribable though; I am not the same person I was at the start of the year and what is to come will change me further and I'm excited to see the outcome.
3 hours into the flight, a few beers down and the tears have passed and the excitement is building, palpable almost. The journey I’ve been planning is now my reality and I will continue on this journey every day, as long as I wake up each morning, excited and smiling. Where better to start than ‘ The Land of a Million Smiles” as Thailand is affectionately known.
On touch down in Chiang Mai on Thursday morning and after collecting my cling filmed wrapped luggage, I headed to the Thai sim card desk and collected a 30 day sim card; 4G data, 20 MB AND 10Baht credit for 850Baht - £19.47. I don’t know whether that is reasonable or not but I know that it’s better than the alternative.
I stayed in an Airbnb 15 minutes walk outside of the Old City in a residential area and it was perfect for my needs and at £12 per night I wasn't expecting luxury and that expectation was met.
Day 1 was pretty overwhelming yet uneventful. The culture shock combined with tiredness, hunger and that horrible anxious feeling like when you’re about to go to the dentist to have a tooth out, all made me feel a bit shit. After a walk around town and a bit of food I headed back at around 4.30pm for a ‘couple of hours’ sleep…….……0700am Friday morning and a body clock re-boot complete. Obviously needed that.
I woke up ravenous so the first point of call was breakfast. After a short walk I came across a small stall in a more residential area leading into the old city serving freshly made, steamed dumplings filled with leeks and bean sprouts. These come with a delicious sweet and spicy teriyaki style sauce and crispy shallot garnish. Tasty, if not a little peculiar in flavor. The crispy shallots are definitely needed if just for texture and the teriyaki style sauce added flavor to what is otherwise something a little bland.
40Baht for 6 of these which is £0.92 . This would easily fill a mere mortal.
After the breakfast was the gym. Whilst the primary focus of this blog is going to be on food and travel, fitness will most certainly have it’s place beyond cycling everywhere. Exercise has helped me no-end this year and it’s something ingrained into my life now. It’s one of the best feelings in the world and all it takes is will power; free essentially. It seem’s Thai’s have a lot of respect for those that keep fit and/or in shape. A number of times I’ve had Thai people stop and say to me “ah, you big man with big muscle, very good, very good”. The gym was called Gold Hillside Gym located on 50 Huaykaew Rd, Tambon Chang Phueak, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50300. 80 Baht for the day, 70 baht for a protein smoothie and 10 Baht for a 600ml water. £3.67 in total. Great equipment, if not from a slightly Soviet Arnie era, but certainly does what it says on the tin and it’s nice and clean.
The first real Thai.... Chinese food experience
There are so many food choices in Chiang Mai but I usually go to the place that has the most locals in. Sometime’s being the only ‘farang’ in there but I love that as it adds to the experience. 'Farang' FYI, is a term used for a ‘foreigner’ as we are called and is actually a term of respect which I later found out.
I was absolutely ravenous by this point and knew I’d only need to pass a couple more restaurants before I succumb to the smell’s. I stumble across a very busy, very local looking restaurant called ‘Hainanese Chicken Rice & Satay Since 1957’- Purfec!
“ Sawatdee Krap” – I order the ‘Pork satay, fried chicken with sweet chilli and rice, which comes with a simple chicken broth with cabbage, and a pickled cucumber, shallot and chilli salad – my first experience of Thai chillis. The satay provides a real sweetness from, I assume, the coconut palm sugar and comes through instantly but the peanut is a little lost, albeit, still really tasty. The fried chicken doesn’t have a sign of grease and is delicious with the sweet and sour sauce and the rice. Looking at the salad with chilli, I smiled to my self, ready to start wiping the beads of sweat off my brow. In it goes “ wait for it, wait for it” nothing. Then I remember why Thai food is some of the best in the world because the Thais know their ingredients, flavours and how to balance these to perfection. The next mouthful however, proved to be sweat inducing but great. Welcome to Thailand.
Where ever I go, which ever city, I try and walk everywhere and Chiang Mai is certainly no different; perfecto for a stroll. The evening takes me to the night Bazaar on the east side of the city walls. The weekends are filled with markets all over the city, with food stalls everywhere. Literally, everywhere. You can imagine the look on my face right? Nirvana.
Popping into a cool little of road, open air food market, I decided to go slightly off road and went for the Bao Buns with crispy pork and spring onions. Seriously tasty! Bao buns are a bread like, steamed bun of Chinese origin.
Portion sizes here are a good size, if like me you like to try lots of different things!
I continued my walk and stumble across a chilled out arts market with live music, promotional beer and some craft products being sold. Lots of wood work, bags, wallets; a real plethora of things and of course, loads of food. On the way in I spotted a small bbq stall selling Yakitori chicken, “I’ll come back to that”. After a beer and a wander later arrives - yakitori time. With peppers, pineapple and sweet bbq chicken on a skewer, there's not many better snacks than this.
The town is buzzing with activity and it’s hard not to love this place. I have felt safe every step of the way and my senses treated to an introduction to Thailand and Southeast Asia.
After another hours walk it’s dinner time. Kat’sKafe within the old city appears in front of me and subconsciously invites me in and I duly oblige. At this point I realized today’s food has been heavily Chinese influenced, so I go for the Pad Thai. From the smells that came from the table next to me, I knew it was going to be good. After a long chat with a nice German couple on the table next to me and scribbling down my day's activities, I head back home for some much needed sleep.
It turns out a couple on another table overheard our conversation and me explaining my adventure and I received a lovely message on Instagram from the guy.
Saturday is fairly uneventful. The day of the devil as I have named it. Few of you will know why.
That evening I head to the well-renowned restaurant just north of Chiang Mai Old City called Khao Moo Chang Phueak. “ Look for the lady in the white cowboy hat” I was advised. The weekend hustle and bustle in Chiang Mai is exciting. On the side of the ring road next to the moat is table after table of street food vendors. The smell's are saliva inducing!
There she is; I squeeze myself onto a table next to a big group of people and order stewed pork, rice and egg. One of the 4 options.
Awesome. Just really simple. The pork, mainly leg cuts, is slowly braised in a stock, sweetened and seasoned with an array of thai flavors: ginger, lemon grass, kaffir, garlic, coriander, spring onion, coconut palm sugar, soys and I’m sure there’s a fair few ingredients in there that I’m not aware of, but the food is very simple. One thing I am surprised by is how little coriander is used in the food and only really used as a garnish. An hour walk home and I crawl into bed. Another great day!
It’s my fourth day in Chiang Mai and I already feel very comfortable the UK feels like a distant land.
My ex’s, father’s, partner’s son Darren lives in Chiang Mai with his lovely wife Note. If I’m honest, I did have to think twice about whether to contact Darren and Note considering their relationship to Nancy. I’d done well in erasing her trace from my life and thought this might be counter-productive for me. I’ve always liked Darren and Note and had met them quite a few times over the past 7 years but I’m so glad I did make contact.
We arranged for Darren and Note to pick me up about 0800am to head to the Jing Jai organic farmers market. I was a little jaded when they picked me up as my relatively early night before turned into a 0200am lock-in at a local bar with the 2 Thai female owners who giggled uncontrollably when I mentioned I was a chef, a German engineer called Norman and an American guy called Austin from Louisiana who also worked there.
On arriving at Jing Jai market, a short 15 minute drive up past Nimman road to the west, the first port of call was coffee. Turns out it was a coffee festival that day, good start!
Darren and Note treated me to a traditional breakfast which Note ordered, and consisted of sticky Rice berry rice in banana leaves, fried fish, chicken thigh and the local Chiang Mai sausage; a pork sausage with all the herbs and spices associated with Thai food with a heavy taste of curry leaves and all eaten off a banana leaf.
From now on, breakfast will be similar. Live like a local. Note introduced me to her auntie who had a market stall of stunning woven baskets and Note actually had one with her to collect her fruit and vegetables for dinner, which they later invited me to which was very nice of them. Notes family are from Lampang, a 100km away, where I’ll be cycling my first leg. Notes auntie said she would happily show me around, but it turns out Notes father has also offered to show me around Lampang which is very kind. His name is Khun Heng and he's an architectural engineer and a very successful one at that I’m told. I love architecture and he loves his food, so I’m sure we’ll get on great.
At the market I was also introduced to a friend’s of Notes family who are local organic farmers. Very friendly and talkative and big foodies. Apparently the wife is an outstanding cook and the husband spoke great English and was telling me about how he studied agricultural in Germany and Israel in the early 90’s which I thought was great and impressive.
Following the market, Darren and Note dropped me off in the centre of town by the 'Three Kings' monument, a structure of -- King Mengrai, the founder of Chiang Mai; his contemporary and reportedly good friend King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai; and King Ngam Muang of Payao, and from there it was to the gym for my daily feed of endorphins! One of my favourite meals, ever! The gym was basic but had everything you need and very central, almost in the middle of the old city.
On every street and around most corners in Chiang Mai is somewhere to get fruit or fruit smoothies and that was the first port of call post gym; sugar! Coconut and pineapple smoothie goes down a treat and quenches my thirst and sugar rush until I arrive back at the Hainanese restaurant from Friday for my feed! Pork Satay, fried chicken, rice, soup, salad; simples. I sit down, order and in under 2 minutes I’ve got food in front of me, awesome. A post gym junkies dream!
2 mouthfull’s in I hear “ Can we sit with you please?” I looked up to see 2 cool looking girls standing there. “Sure, please do, foods great.” Turns out the cool looking girls are Hawaiians called Annabel and Lea. I was told by Lea that Anthony Bourdain had recommended the restaurant with the lady in the white cowboy hat on one of his shows. I later messaged him on Instagram. And got this reply “ .” J After a really cool chat over lunch, they finish up and stand to leave “We’ll get yours Andy!” “Really?”, “Sure, it was great to meet you and thanks for letting us sit with you.” How nice is that!!
Darren and Note had invited me for dinner at their house that evening, so after a freshen up, Darren picked me up! He’s great company and also a big West Ham fan.
They live in a gated residential estate 20 minutes to the east of the Old City and is a lovely home.
Note cooked braised pork ribs, steamed rice, cabbage and mushrooms which is light and delicious. After dinner they introduce me to a few different probiotic health drinks. One being Kombucha which is a fermented, pro-biotic Thai tea using different fruits; this one being made from Aegle Marmelos, commonly know as bael but also as Bengal quince, golden apple, Japanese bitter orange, stone apple or wood apple and is part of the apple family. It tastes and smells a bit like cider and is really delish and great for good gut health.
Then comes the chocolates and coffee. The chocolates are from Japan and my word were they good! I have a feeling it was tempered chocolate because the texture was divine; so smooth. Note offered me another and I couldn’t resist. After showing them my route to Laos and a nice chat, Darren offered to pick me up early in the morning to hike up to Doi Suthep, the second tallest mountain in Chiang Mai. Amazing.
At 6.15am Darren picked me up on his moped and I jumped on the back and off we went! That was awesome fun in itself.
The hike is amazing; an hour and 15 of up-hill climbing. Chiang Mai is at an elevation of 300m and Doi Suthep has an elevation of 600m+ so it’s not a bad little hike and tough on the legs. Halfway up is an incredible Wat (temple) called Wat Phalad. It is truly spectacular and you get a real sense of place. I can’t help but smile from ear to ear.
We continue to the top to Wat Doi Suthep and on arrival I’m surprised to see a busy village. This is a tourist hotspot and you can see why! The view from the top was very hazy that day unfortunately but on a clear day, the views would be incredible. It is still a stunning place.
We head back down and get to the top of the trail where a group of ‘farang’ are looking down “is this the route down to Wat Phalad?” one of the guys ask's. “Yes” Darren replied. “Have you done it before, is it ok?” “Yeah, it’s fine, bit steep in places”
We let them go ahead as I needed to put my camera and bits away. Just 15 meters away we caught up with the group and heard one of the girl’s say “ Oh my god, I did not sign up for this” Haha, parts of it are pretty steep to be fair and the first bit especially. They let us go ahead and our speed picks up until we are trail running down the hill. Awesome fun and very sweaty. We get half way down to Wat Phalad again and I start filming on my Go-pro. We get to the waterfall and Darren suggests crossing over the waterfall. Sure, simples. First step and wham. Man down. I have footage so when the first video comes out, you’ll get to witness it.
We headed back down the mountain and breakfast was crying out. Darren pointed out a place on the road as we rode in earlier in the morning, so we headed there. Darrens Thai is very good and he orders a local breakfast dish, Kao Tom, a typical rice soup breakfast of minced pork balls-ish, steamed rice, egg and chicken stock.
Really delicious and nutritious. It’s been one of the dishes that has stood out to me. Maybe more so because it was a dish that I wouldn’t normally associate with breakfast, but none the less, very tasty. We jump back on the moped and Darren drops me off and we say our goodbyes and I my gratitude.
The afternoon was very chilled with some blogging and lunch at Huen Phen in the centre of the Old City. 2 dishes I had yet to try in Chiang Mai was the Khao Soi and the Papaya Salad which I order. Khao Soi has become synonymous with Chiang Mai and is a dish of spicy red curry paste coconut soup with egg noodles, chicken or pork and crunchy noodles on top. Rich, great contrast of textures and a great balance of spice and sweetness. The meat is spoon tender but maybe could have done with another chicken's worth of meat in it, but let's not get too finicky. The papaya salad was uber fresh, simple and almost pallette cleansing. An extra squeeze of lime and you get that little party in your mouth when you eat something delicious.
Lunch and blogging was all going so well until I ate what was quite possibly one of the hottest chillis in my life. Cue the nervous giggle, the uncomfortable sweating and spicy saliva. Fortunately it was short lived and with in 10 minutes my mind had stopped verbally assaulting my mouth.
Dinner was an interesting experience and as local as you can get. I went pretty off road here and the staff even laughed when a ‘farang’ wanted to eat at their restaurant. After some poor attempts at communicating, I think I got the gist of it. It’s 199Baht all you can eat & drink and you help your self to raw ingredients that you cook yourself in a pork stock and a beef stock, on a stove in front of you. Very cool if a little embarrassing at first, looking around at what all the locals were doing. Fortunately, as a chef and to their surprise, I kinda knew what flavours I was playing with and my dinner turned out awesome and great value. I literally went up to the self-serve counter 4 times to get more and get my fill of crispy veg, enoki mushrooms and chicken.
Great feed, great experience and a great place. If you do come to Chiang Mai and are happy to go outside of your comfort zone, head to this place! Hai Ya, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50100.
My last day in Chiang Mai and it’s another exciting day! 2 things on my agenda. Collect my bike from Triple Cats Bicycles and an evening cooking course. An hours walk over the river to the east and arrive at Triple Cats Bicycles to see Nu and to pick up my bike. I was in a predicament for months back in the UK about how I was going to get my bike over to Thailand with out it A) getting damaged in transit and B) costing the world.
I happened across Triple Cats and Nu online and I’m so glad I did. From the very start Nu was incredibly helpful; answering all my questions quickly and providing a great service. On arrival at his shop I could instantly tell he was a really nice, helpful and honest guy.
I’d been on a bike touring facebook group and had asked a question which I got a good response from. One being from Michael who was in Chiang Mai and thought he’d seen me the day before in a cafe with my bike. So who was in Triple Cat’s when I arrive, Michael! We have a great chat and I pick Michael’s and Nu’s brains about bike touring and we share contact details aka, befriend each other on facebook. After an hour or so, I settle up with Nu, and I’m off. The bike feels great and I’m like a kid in a candy store; so excited.
I ride the 6k back to the apartment and load her up. We are going to get very well acquainted over the next however long.
The first of many cooking class
On the way to see Nu I stopped for coffee and do some blogging. I end up getting a Thai tea which takes for ever. When it arrives I understand why; it looks awesome.
I enquired about the evening cooking course and in less than 30 minutes, I received a call from them and booked it.
There’s plenty to choose from in Chiang Mai, but the ratings for this were good and it was out of town which made me think it might be a bit more authentic to the one in the centre of town.
At 5pm a tuk tuk driver picked me up from my apartment. Having picked me up an hour late it felt like he was trying to make-up time, or see how long he could stand on two wheels for as he whizzed through Chiang Mai, beeping and weaving through the traffic. First stop was the market where I was met by Deedo, a young Thai chap who spoke relatively good English. After showing me around the market and showing me a few different ingredients and answering my constant questions, it was back on the speed wagon to Siam Rice Cookery School, another 10 minute drive away.
Siam Rice Cookery School is out west of the Old City towards Doi Suthep.
When we arrived I had to choose 1 dish from 6 categories. Soup, Noodles, Stir fry, Salad, Curry, Dessert . The options were as you would expect and I went for the dishes with foundations of Thai cooking; Hot and sour soup, Pad Thai, Papaya salad, Chicken with cashew nuts, Khoa soi, Sticky coconut rice & mango mango.
After choosing my dishes it was onto the cooking. I cooked the hot and sour soup on my own, one to one with Deedo. Such simple ingredients and such a balance of sweet and sour with a bit of spice thrown into the mix. After cooking and eating the soup I joined a group of 4. Max from Holland, Marilie from Canada, Ilian from L.A and Tamara from Germany and it was onto the next course. The teachers name was Nancy which made me laugh a bit; I bet she has morals and a conscience.
I will be creating a recipes page on my website where I’ll share a recipe every 2 weeks. When my adventure comes to an end, I will be writing a cook/travel book with all of the recipes from Southeast Asia.
We carried on the cooking each dish, preparing some of the next and then sitting down to eat, chatting about our experiences in Chiang Mai so far, where to go, what to see etc It was great fun and a great group of people.
The food was outstanding and the level of engagement and the information was spot on. It feel’s great to know you walked away with a few handy tips that have also answered a few questions also.
The Khao soi had to be the standout dish for. The depth of flavor in something that only takes 10 minutes to cook and 25 minutes to prepare is brilliant. The curry paste is the time consuming part and takes the time and effort but it’s so worth it. Once you master the curry paste, you've created the foundation of you dish.
Overall the evening was great fun and highly recommended if visiting Chiang Mai. At a mere 800Baht or £18.46 for the evening course, it is incredible value and definitely one to add to your to-do list.
I had no expectation of Chiang Mai and Thailand before I came here, but I leave with the bar set high. Chiang Mai is an endearing City. Blissfully calm yet paradoxically lively. Like most places, there is so much to do, see and taste, around every corner, a sensory escapade. Chiang Mai hugs you then gently releases you back into the wild.
Until next time.