TAMARA OBERHOLSTER and her husband chose Thailand as a holiday destination for a good first taste of Asia. And because it’s cheap.
We’d plotted our journey to include Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, but Chiang Mai, which offers Thai culture, Myanmar-influenced food and a range of activities, was my favourite, by far.
With three and a half days in the city, we packed in as much as we could. We started exploring some of the Old City’s temples, lingering outside Wat Pra Singh to enjoy street food and fresh coconut water from the shell. A short walk away is the Wat Chedi Luang, the giant 1400AD Lanna-style chedi, partially ruined during a 16th century earthquake. Originally the home of the Emerald Buddha, which now resides in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaew, a pulley system allows devout visitors to send up water to bathe the Buddha relics.
In one of the adjacent buildings, an embalmed monk in a glass box terrified me. I thought he was performing some sort of holy act until I realised he hadn’t blinked in the five minutes I’d been staring at him. After Googling “monk in a glass box Wat Chedi Luang” I was relieved to discover I wasn’t the only one. For a livelier monk experience, there’s the “Monk Chat” programme next to Wat Chedi Luang where you can chat to the monks and give them a chance to practice their English. As in the temples, visitors are expected to dress modestly. A woman must never touch a monk.
Slightly cooler evenings in Chiang Mai are the perfect time to shop.
The Night Bazaar on Thanon Chang Khlan offers everything from fake brands to exquisite Thai handicrafts, an abundance of food options, and a myriad massage spots, some outside among the stalls, others inside (with aircon).
I gawked at the hand-carved soap flowers and bartered for clothing while my husband tried the local beer. At the Anusarn food market, an offshoot of the main market, we ate our fill of khao soi (a Burmese-influenced Thai curry noodle dish) and tried out the flavours of Fanta not available in South Africa (blueberry, strawberry and “green”). Then it was back to the market for more haggling.
A foot massage at Le Best Massage after hours of pavement pounding was sweet relief. At 180THB (about R54) for an hour-long foot, head and shoulder massage, it was the best buy of the day.
We spent the next day at Elephant Nature Park. Founded by Khun Lek, the place has been featured on Animal Planet and won awards for rehabilitating abused elephants and providing a happy place for pachyderms to live out their retirement.
Our chirpy guide, Zaa, introduced us to some of the 34 residents and we fed and washed the elephants, watched them swim and learnt about their plight in Thailand. Elephants employed in the logging industry were abandoned when logging became illegal in the 1980s, and, with their mahouts they had to beg on city streets. Aside from some trying questions from people in our tour group – “Do elephants accept dogs into their herds?” Seriously? – it was a lovely outing.
The next day we attended a cooking course with the Thai Farm Cooking School, stopping first at a local Thai market to be educated on rice, spices and other ingredients. Then it was on to the organic farm, 17km outside Chiang Mai, where we picked fresh makheau phuang, a pea-sized bitter eggplant, and ka prao, holy basil. We spent the day cooking and eating. Between us, my husband and I made eight dishes and took half the food home with us for dinner. The instructor, Tsurian, kept us chuckling with her jokes about how many chillies to use for the “sexy lips” effect. I learnt how to cook sticky rice with mango – the quintessential Thai dessert – and plan to impress guests with it at home.
Our last night in Chiang Mai was a Sunday, which meant we could enjoy the popular Sunday Walking Street market that starts at the Tha Phae Gate in the Old City and extends for a kilometre down Ratchadamnoen Road. We did our gift shopping here but it gets crowded so it’s best to arrive early. Open from 4pm until midnight, the Sunday Walking Street is a great place to try out Thai street food, like som tam (green papaya salad), omelettes cooked in banana leaves, sai ua – a Chiang Mai speciality (spicy pork sausage), or kanom krok (a sweet fried coconut custard snack). Other foods on offer include cheap sushi starting at 5THB a piece (about R1.50), to Indian and Chinese offerings.
The drinks are worth trying too. Aside from the delicious fresh fruit shakes (and beer, of course), you can top your beverage with chao kuai a translucent black jelly thought to have cooling properties) although I must admit it didn’t go with my cold Milo.