Newsflash: Southeast Asia is hot, hot, hot.
But it turns out Northern Thailand in April is the exception to this rule. Because it’s not hot. Northern Thailand in April is a smoky, sweltering, fiery furnace that likely makes hell feel temperate. And this is coming from someone who genuinely likes the heat.
You’d think this environment would call for smoothies and salads. Forget that. The people of Chiang Mai walk to the meat, I mean, beat, of their own drum.
KHAO SOI AT KHAO SOI LAM DUAN – FA HAM
One of my favorite Portland restaurants is Mee-Sen Thai—a funky little noodle shop—and my favorite dish on the menu is Khao Soi. So, when I discovered that Khao Soi is one of the staple dishes of Chiang Mai, I was excited, to say the least.
I tried it at a few different places in the city, with my favorite bowl coming from Khao Soi Lam Duan – Fa Ham. It seemed both creamier and spicier than most of the other shops I visited. The tender chicken leg nestled in the soft noodles, then topped with crispy fried noodles. Textural bliss, baby.
But my favorite part of Khao Soi is the pickled cabbage they serve on the side. A nice, sour contrast to the heavy, savory dish.
LARB AT LAAP KAO CHAM CHAA
Just down the road from Fa Ham, is an unassuming street stand serving some very traditional dishes. I ordered the larb by recommendation. Larb, by definition, is a “meat salad,” which seems like an oxymoron. A rich, spicy oxymoron, best served with cabbage and cold beer.
I can’t say this is the best larb I’ve ever had, but it’s likely the most traditional. The flavor was deep, earthy. I think I prefer a brighter, more acidic take. But it was tasty, nonetheless. And the setting was imperfectly perfect.
CHICKEN WINGS AT A RESTAURANT I CAN’T REMEMBER
I have a complicated relationship with chicken wings. A weird thing to say, I know. Sometimes I think they’re the most delicious food in the world and other times I’m totally disgusted by them. I guess like with most things, the quality of ingredients and the way they’re prepared makes all the difference.
Judging by the before and after pictures, I’ll let you decide how I felt about these particular wings.
I also ordered a plate of vegetables in an attempt to be healthy. But they came floating in a sweet, sticky sauce laced with pork belly. Oops.
MEAT WITH A SIDE OF MEAT AT RICE BARN
I never would have ventured out to the Rice Barn if it wasn’t for a recommendation from a food photographer I met a few years ago. Hot tip: Always take food photographers’ restaurant recommendations. The Rice Barn is a peaceful little oasis outside the city. And it convinced me that the world’s best breakfast may be a bowl full of stewed meat served alongside a plateful of smoked meat.
What I remember most about the pork stew is the tang and the texture. It was the perfect amount of sour and it fell apart in your mouth. The sausage had the ideal distribution of fat, herbs, and chili. And it was spicy. Really spicy. Especially when you’re sitting in the sun on a 95 degree day.
Are you sweating? Me too. Now if only there was a way to cool down…
When I booked my ticket to Chiang Mai, I was completely oblivious to Songkran, Thailand’s New Year. Upon arrival, I was quickly enlightened by locals, but it’s one of those things that you have to see to fully grasp.
Every year from April 12 to 16, Thailand turns into a water war zone. The act of throwing water is to wash away the bad luck; a well-wish for the new year. It’s a religious holiday, with many traditional activities taking place, but for tourists and locals alike, it’s a massive party. Everyone gets involved.
Earlier that week, while motor biking the Mae Sariang loop, I met two very fun British guys, Adam and Brandon. We deemed ourselves B.A.M. M.C. (motorcycle club) on the road and thankfully this partnership continued into the festival. I don’t mean to be insensitive, comparing Songkran to a war zone, but there are some definite similarities. Chaos. Confusion. And ambush can happen at any moment, like when you’re trying to snap a photo.
In these situations, it’s great to have a team on your side.
After two days of Songkran craziness, I was especially looking forward to quiet, friendly Myanmar, my next destination. But when I arrived in Yangon, it seemed the peaceful, Buddha-loving Burmese had been replaced by EDM-infatuated party animals. Thingyan, the Myanmar New Year, had just begun.
Thingyan gave ‘soaked to the bone’ a whole new meaning. It was like Songkran on steroids. One thing I quickly discovered is that when you’re one of the only light-haired, light-skinned women in the city, you are walking around with a target on your back. The first day I ventured out to find coffee and in three minutes was ambushed by a group of young boys armed with buckets and hoses. In three minutes, I went from dry to drenched.
And that was just the beginning. I eventually made my way to the main celebration area, arriving in disbelief; both of the size of the celebration and the state of my wet rat appearance. Although it was incredibly overwhelming and chaotic, it was impossible not to smile. The people of Myanmar seem to live for this holiday and the joy it brings them is contagious.
After a couple hours and bucket #784 was dumped on my head, I began to make the journey back to the hotel. Along the wet walk, I miraculously stumbled upon a beautiful little street that looked relatively dry. Like a life preserver for a drowning tourist.
As I neared the end of the street, where I’d be shot back into the war zone, a heard someone say “hello” and “beer?” Music to my ears. I turned around and was welcomed by a group of seven or eight smiling men sitting on plastic chairs in the street. I sat down, they poured me a glass, and offered me snacks.
One of the men spoke a little English, but I understood less than 10%. It didn’t matter. We drank and laughed until the sun went down. When my clothes were finally dry and the festivities seemed to have settled, I decided to head home. And just as I got up to leave, I felt that all-too-familiar rush of water down my back accompanied by a smile and the words “happy new year.” A parting gift. I said “happy new year” (although I would have preferred to say something else) and walked home, trying to remember that the water is intended as a gift.
If this splashing really does rid bad luck, consider me the luckiest person alive.