South East Asia is famed for so much, and chiefly, its food culture. I’ve been to Thailand many times, but this is my first trip to the north, in Chiang Mai. It is so distinct from its southern counterpart, Bangkok. The pace of life is slower and everything is more spread out, less densely packed (except, perhaps, for the crowded night markets). What does one do in the north of Thailand? Why, you trek and you eat.
Our day of arrival was a Saturday, which is fortunate because the Saturday Night Street Market is a treasure trove of trinkets, locally crafted clothes and textiles, and most importantly, street food. Our experience might accurately be described as an eating frenzy. So many carts and so little room in the stomach! What a terrible quandary. But Brandon and I handled this like the eating experts we are, expanding our stomachs close to the breaking point. From savory shumai dumplings, to fried banana flowers, to every assortment of meats on sticks you could imagine, we indulged our taste buds to their limits. Chiang Mai is famous for its sausage (Sai ua) and we tried a number of different ones, from sour fermented pork sausage, to ‘milk sausage.’ All were delicious. And chatting with the lovely street chefs was almost as much a highlight as the cuisine itself.
But all those calories demand some kind of counter balance. Rather than settling in my fat cells and making them grow, a good, hard, long day of trekking seemed to be the answer. Brandon and I have been waiting for the chance to work up a sweat and get into the real outdoors, so we booked a day trip with a local tour agency (Panda Tours). We opted for their “less touristy” offering, and I cannot stress enough how much they delivered on this description. A mixed group of eleven of us were shuttled in a comfortable van past Mae Rim to the Ban Pa Poo Jom area in the hills north of the city. Perhaps Panda Tours could be more diligent in describing the extent to which this trek is strenuous. Brandon and I were well prepared, as we both do a lot of hiking at home, but other people in our group did not fair quite so well. Two men were feeling sick with stomach problems and about half the group was wearing basic sneakers with no tread. Within 20 minutes 3 or 4 people had already fallen on the steep, narrow, and densely forested trails. Thank God they covered everyone with insurance. But hey, this is what we signed up for – a more authentic, local experience!
The trek lasted five hours in total and including van travel time the day lasted about 7.5 hours. We stopped at a refreshing waterfall for a dip and visited a Hmong and a Lahu village. Most surprising was seeing a church at the incredibly remote Lahu village. I guessed these groups would be Buddhist or practice animism, but our guide explained (and I cannot say enough good things about our guide, Sarawat) that they had been contacted by Christian missionaries before fleeing for Thailand during the civil war in Burma/Myanmar. I love to be surprised!
After a long day of tough trekking, what do you think we were ready for when we got back to the city? You guessed it: the even bigger Sunday Night Market, which engulfs two major streets in the center of the Old City, and all the food it had on offer. Highlights: perfectly prepared pork belly, bacon wrapped mushrooms, quail eggs, and bee egg omelette. Yum! Maybe another hike is in order. What a dangerous cycle we seem to be in.