Thailand is the classic cliche travelers destination, from the original 70s hippies on the banana pancake trail (so called as locals began to make banana pancakes as for western travellers as an antidote to traditional Thai brekkies), to ‘The Beach’ inspired hedonists of the 90s; all full moon parties, cocktail buckets and mushroom shakes, to the heady eclectic mix of young kids looking for kicks, family holidays, sex tourists, 30something wanderers and everything else in between; of 2018. For this reason we were a little wary of the place. Perhaps felt like we’d already been by hearing all the stories. Maybe felt like it was too popular. Could be that it didn’t offer us what we wanted. So we didn’t settle too long first time round and didn’t stretch ourselves to do too much, basically using Bangkok as a transport hub to get out to the south eastern islands. And they were really magic and worthy of all the accolades and popularity. Making our way back from Vietnam to Bangkok in order to fly out again in two weeks, we wanted to find something new about Thailand and so headed north.
Landing in Chiang Mai we arrive in town in sweltering heat – welcome back to Thailand. Hot weather, hot food. Within an hour we’ve had a Pad Thai, not my fave Thai food but when in Rome etc. (and added plenty fresh chilies) and a Chang beer and by day 2 we’ve enjoyed a walking tour of Chiang Mai’s temples. Beautiful Buddhist structures ranging from the quintessential giant golden Buddhas , smooth white stupas and golden spikes; To an ancient ruined sandstone stupa ringed with elephant sculptures, half of them missing and part of the roof too as the historians can’t agree how it should be accurately renovated. I kind of like it as it is anyway. We’re pretty templed out but they are impressive and undoubtably inspiring places.
So temples and food done, beaches already checked off the list from last month, what else has Thailand to offers a The next day we Rent a motorcycle and ride to waterfalls in the hills outside Chiang Mai.
First waterfall is Montha Than, a steep stepped and slopey slab of pale stone that dwarfs me. The water itself is scattered but persistent. In splayed sprays over the face of the falls. And mine too.
Further upstream Sai Yoi waterfall is a needle thin water plume dropping with force into a small slappy Timeotai advert type pool. I dash under it with relish.
Wat Pha Dat is a really a trickle of water that eventually comes to the Wang Bua bang falls down hill (which we visit later) but for now we follow the thread of water along a trail called ‘pilgrims path’ as it links the temple at the very top of this hill to the town below. Peacefully waking in silence between leaves and trees and branches, losing sight of the river but hearing it always.
At the very summit of the hill sits Phra That Doi Suthep temple, famously elaborate and offers me the opportunity to take a photo next to various bells which I love and to see some great views out over Chiang Mai. The golden dome a brilliant beacon of Buddhism here. There are a number of shrines here but the highlight for me being the an undulating staircase with Naga in the entrance. I scoff ace chilli pork stir fry at little stall outside and we head back.
Along the way through we spot the sign for Wang Bua Bang, a series of three falls descending across slippy shiny bulbous sand coloured rocks. First one is a bathtub sized cool brown shallow pool. We lounge here for a while before gingerly tiptoeing down a steep incline on which I slipped over four times bruised bum and cut my leg but it is worth it for the jumping pool bravery test. Which of course I pass, egged on by local daredevil children half my age.
Something about waterfalls that I love;
Catch the Water that falls
Water sprays over down and around the face of the falls like veins on the back of your hand
Wipe away the moist from my mouth and
I look down at my blurry toes and the steady cool flow persistent and constant and sure all the way to it’s beating ocean heart
Water pounding walloping down and I dry swallow and am wobbled by this force of physics.
A test of nerve. Eyes look down the barrel of the chute
Reassuring certainty, inevitability, but beautiful unpredictability, like staring into the flames of the fire
Needle thin plume of water drops down sharply into the foamy whitewash below
Brooding blue bowl
Leap of faith over outcrops to drop into a wide cauldron of choppy water below
I have faith.
A butterfly wisps by –
After swimming food is the best and none more so than Thailand, this is where my tendency for two main courses comes into its own. Smashed some spicy noodles and Tom Yum too.
Aside from food beaches temples and some other less salubrious stuff, Thailand is famous for Thai boxing, I thought here they may just call it ‘boxing’ but the correct name is ‘Muay Thai’, and its a proper spectacle. The arena is sweaty with a very loud and excitable MC, who not only announces the fighters but continues to commentate full blast as the fights go on.
Each home fighter has a pre bout ritual to music, including yoga style poses, and both psych out moves and respectful bows to the opponent. All with the zany commentator still shouting.
First bout is young kids and cultured boxers it seems (not that I know). But suddenly blue corner who’d been on top through the first 4 rounds took a surprise swing to chin and was out. Shock win for the red corner !
In the next couple of bouts the fighters do not look like they are suited for this at all! Pretty weedy and dorky and one lad just looks fed up. Like he was the tea lad and had to step in at last minute or something!
He takes one punch and kind of slides to the canvas and covers his head. Bless. His dad is there, a big bloke, and you can imagine he’s trying to toughen him up or something.
Next one is ace. A proper accountant looking character has a dead laid back fighting style but got some cool moves. Tries a spinning elbow and gets knocked down but then does a ‘worm’ back to his feet. Crowd goes wild. Eventually he catches a loose hook and doesn’t duck and he’s down and away. Crowd goes quiet. MC rages on manically.
Final fight we watch is a beast. Two lads going at it. The red corner boy catches a kick cleanly on his chin and is knocked out cold. Proper thump on the canvas then a moment of almost quiet as everyone sees he’s gone. A splash of water from the corner man / dad and he’s gingerly leaving the ring to applause. We enjoyed ‘Muay Thai’ so seems like some of the Thai cliches are good, not to mention another Thai classic; the Tuk Tuk home.
We found a water park. I love water parks.
Grand Canyon swimming was amazing slides and cliff jumps and zip lines and inflatable obstacles and dunking and diving and splashing and laughing. Like it’s a knockout, on acid, in the sun. There’s one of them giant inflatable pillows where you sit on one end and then someone jumps on the other and catapults you into the air. There’s a zip line which whizzes you across the canyon by a wire. There’s a big cliff jump which is brill. It’s so much fun.
After swim hunger calls for a papaya seafood salad and after swim aches called for a massage. But this spa in the Main Street of Chiang Mai is staffed by ex prisoners in re training, so although very relaxing all feet and hands and cracks and relaxing music I’m kind of wondering what she was in for originally.
On the same street when we blink out into the evening is a Sunday food market – amazing serendipity. The menu for me consists of:
Chiang Mai pork spicy pork sausage
Pork noodle soup
Rare lemongrass beef satay
Haianese chicken rice
Food is really a big part of Thailand for me – something which I nurtured in England before my visit regularly enjoying food from North Leeds Thai restaurant / take away ‘Sukhothai’ – so it only seemed right to visit the actual town of Sukhothai. We are hoping to attend a cooking course here if possible as a tribute.
Travel to Sukhothai by bus and stay in a really lovely place so as the sun is burning hot we relax at the cool greeny blue pool and amazing food in restaurant. Steamed pork with lime chilli and garlic lunch this time.
Chill by pool some more and swimming and headspace and then meal in the hotel – again! It’s so nice. As we’re in Sukhothai I have my staple take away like we do in Leeds. Chicken satay and pad prik gang gai – spicy nicey.
I was surprised to learn the most famous draw of this town is not that a Leeds restaurant shares the name (meaning ‘dawn of happiness’) but that it was an historical centre of Northern Thailand in 13th-14th C and is the site of some of the most ancient temples in Thailand. Similar in style to the Khmer temples in Cambodia but some even older. Yep, more temples.
We motorbike out to some of the notable ones. Not too excited be honest (we more came here for the food) but set off early to avoid the sun and aim to be back by midday. First of all we skirt around the north of the main park to Wat Phra Phai Luang and Wat Si Chum. The former is an old complex where you can see half collapsed Buddha’s standing and sitting; structures as tall as houses. There is a pond with giant lotus flowers. The latter is a towering compete Buddha sat inside a rectangular space. Smooth and serene it’s fingertips are long and slender. This statue signifies ‘one who is not frightened’.
A short drive to the west and we come to Wat Saphon Hin, another massive Buddha, this one standing though, atop a 200m hilltop. A zig zag of stone slabs make a spiritual staircase up to the monument and it’s nice to take a moment there and look down around the grounds of the historical park of Sukhothai.
Climbing down the biking to he main park we spend another hour walking The temples here have undergone a little more renovation that the famous ones in Siemreap and dare I say it they could be even better than them…
Unfortunately we cannot attend a cooking course in Sukhothai as it seems it’s out of season or staff are on holiday or no replies to emails and given this was the main reason for coming here it’s a fortunate find that the temples were so good. Nice on Thailand surprised us there.
Onto Bangkok then the vice city party town street food fun sex hub capital.
We’re not here for the booze or sex but the fodder.
Cooking course booked and some other food fun; first Indian meal since India and a secret surprise for Helen.
Cooking course is brilliant it’s like they’ve made the menu knowing my favourite Thai nosh.
To start, Tom Yam Goong, spicy lemongrass seafood soup. First we fry off the lemongrass garlic kaffir line leaves and chili’s then fire in the tomatoes mushrooms and shrimps.
Next Pad Thai, a basic noodle staple that as the man says is neither sweet nor salty nor hot nor mild due to the pretty even balance battle of ingredients. Salt vs palm sugar, chilli v soy, tamarind v garlic.
Apparently due to its blandness everyone likes it haha
One of my faves now – Som tam – spicy papaya salad. Shredded grated carrots and young papaya, lots of fish sauce (this was the only dish the man insisted could not be made vegetarian for Helen) and peanuts on lettuce.
For the Mussaman curry we pound roasted chilies and red peppers with pestle and mortar then mix with garlic and spices and coconut milk to make a sweet nutty potatoey curry
Dessert is Sticky mango rice – rice cooked sweet with sugar and served with swayed mango.
For our first Indian meal since India we have picked out an oft reviewed restaurant called ‘Maya’ atop the Holiday Inn so definitely not the usual Thai experience.
With a thunderstorm storm flashing across the skyscraper sky while we enjoy poppadums, paneer tikka, seekh kebab, tikka chicken and then it had to be a Thali set: palak paneer, chicken tikka masala, dal makhani, lamb josh, saffron rice garlic naan and missi roti.
So yo to now no fried scorpion or shot of snakes blood for me. For our last meal Instead we ‘Dine in the Dark’ calls itself ‘an illuminating culinary journey into the world of the visually impaired’.
Diners are led into a completely dark room and served food without the luxury of sight. Waiters are blind or visually impaired themselves and proceeds from the restaurants go towards local charities for visually impaired. There are several around the world. But tonight in Bangkok we are led by our host ‘Baul’ by the hand and we have to feel our way around the table and chair and napkins and knives and forks. Baul talks calmly and quietly and explains the drill. Food arrives and we can smell and feel and hear and taste but can’t see anything. At the end we have to guess what we’ve had. It’s so much fun and although unsettling it does what it sets out to achieve, which is highlighting the importance of sight and difficulties of living with sight problems but also enhancing the eating experience by forcing you to focus on the taste and texture and smell of the food. We get messy and spill abit but remarkably quickly get the hang of where the plates are and sometimes just chatting forget where we are – in the the pitch black. Still, it’s easy sat in a chair with a guide for an hour. It does bring home the reality of a life without sight but the knowledge and care and zest of Baul shows the strength of the other senses. Including love.
Mostly right in the run down afterwards the menu once revealed was:
Hot and cold soups
Pheasant and cabbage apricot and apple and raisin
Desserts – caramel ice cream plum tart fruit salad papaya and melon lime jelly panna cotta
Seems like there’s more to Thailand than ping pong shows and full moon parties.