Sunday, December 13, 2015

Chiang Mai, Thailand - Villa, Cooking School, Floating Lanterns

Our second full day in Chiang Mai was more laid back because we knew we would be out late that night for Loy Krathong and Yee Peng, two separate festivals that happen to coincide in northern Thailand each year because they are based around the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar (which in the West means it usually happens in November).  That meant that this year the festival fell on November 25th, but next year (2016) it will be on November 15th.  One of the big reasons we planned this trip when we did was so we could attend these festivals.  They don't often coincide with Thanksgiving, but since they overlapped in 2015 we were able to do a much longer trip with fewer days off of work for Paul.  

We stayed at the Khum Phaya Resort in Chiang Mai.  When I was researching places to stay in Chiang Mai, I narrowed in on hotels done in the Lanna Thai style, which is very traditional northern Thai using lots of exotic wood and ornate carving.  It is gorgeous and somehow (I seriously didn't plan this), I had booked a villa, which was huge and beautiful with its own little garden area, private massage tables, and enormous 4 poster canopy bed draped with white linens and mosquito netting.  It gave a feeling of being transported to a much older place and time.  I don't know why I never got a picture of the interior of the room!  I kept meaning to but just forgetting.  Here is a picture of the main entrance - the lobby is completely open to the elements other than the roof structure, which is neat.  Also, EVERYBODY was wearing these ridiculous pants all over Thailand and Cambodia.  So, you know, I got some too.  Its like wearing pajamas all day long and totally bizarre but completely accepted, at least among the tourist set.

The two biggest downsides to Khum Phaya were location and mosquitos.  It was about 15 minutes from the city center, which isn't super inconvenient and had the upside of being really quiet and removed, but it had the downside of tuk-tuk drivers getting lost and a $5-10 ride into town.  Granted, we only had to go in once a day the two days we were there and its not like that is a ton of money (and the resort had a free shuttle that ran 5 or 6 times a day - it just wasn't when we wanted to go in), but still...we have always preferred staying right where the action is and generally try to book places that are more central and are happier when we do.  And the mosquitos were pretty bad - I think largely because the resort is set right on a river and we arrived just a few weeks after the end of the rainy season.  In fact, everywhere we went - Siem Reap, Chiang Mai and Krabi - were fumigating to get rid of the mosquitos, so maybe the rest of the year they aren't such an issue?  Anyway, we had come prepared with bug spray and deet wipes and had taken the precaution of getting shots to prevent diseases beforehand so we weren't too affected other than a couple of bites that I got on my ankles.  But there was no way I was going to try a massage outdoors utilize the jacuzzi because I am just too much of a draw for mosquitos and would have been eaten alive baring that much skin back there, insect repellent or not.

The girls loved this place because the front desk kept a well-stocked basket of apples set out for visitors and every time we passed through the lobby Clara would walk up to the concierge and say "Sa-wat-dee-Kaahhhhhhhh, may I have an apple please?" and get herself a nice little treat.  Incidentally, Clara got pretty good at saying hello in Thai in Chiang Mai because of this and really drew out the polite "Kah" on the end.  When we got home our friend who is half Thai and served his mission in Thailand explained that the longer you hold out your "Kah" the more respectful it is, which explains why the employees at the resort seemed to overexaggerate the "kah's" to the point where we were wondering what was up with that word.  Clara also got good at thank you, which is "kop-kun-Kah" with the same polite ending being drawn out for more respect.  

This is a shot of our "backyard" to our villa.  It was really cute!  I wish we could have eaten breakfast out here or something.

And there was a little fence enclosing our garden but this is the view through a little gate in the fence.  Some huts that people live in, a murky river, and coconut and banana trees.

Way back last January when I went to the Masterchef Top 100 auditions in LA, I started thinking about doing a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai because a few of the friends I made through the audition process had done it and said it was a great experience.  There are a lot of places you can go for this experience but the one that got recommended by one of my fellow masterchef hopefuls was called "A Lot of Thai" with a woman named Yui.  She has an outdoor instructional kitchen set up on the side of her house and provided us with a cookbook 30 or so recipes that she rotates through depending on the day of the week that the class is held.  Normally they pick people up from their hotels in their vintage VW baby blue bug but since my hotel was outside the main city area, I took a taxi in and then just rode around with them to collect the other students for the day from their hotels.

We made 3 dishes - noodles, soup, and a curry.  Easily and by far, the noodle dish was my favorite.  It was so, so, so good and I absolutely want to make it again and add it to my repetoire of things I make at home.  It was called Pad-See-lew and was made with wide rice noodles and pork and chinese broccoli in a wok with some sort of crushed red pepper flakes sprinkled on top depending on how spicy you like it.

We used a number of ingredients that I have never seen before like keffir lime leaf and this root called galangal, which is sort of like ginger but with a different flavor and not interchangeable.  It went into the Tom-Ka-Gai (Chicken in Hot & Sour Soup with Coconut Milk) that we made.  I had this a few times on our trip and actually made it again in another cooking class I ended up taking in Krabi at our resort and each time it was a little bit different.  But it is another one I want to make here at home a few times to see how well I can recreate it in an american kitchen.  Thankfully I live in an area where I have a pretty good idea about how to find these more exotic ingredients.

And for our last dish, we got to choose to do either a red or green curry.  My favorite part about this dish was the two very different types of eggplant we used in it, neither of which were anything like the eggplant I was familiar with here (the big purple variety that I have only used grilled or in eggplant lasagna and wasn't a big fan of either time).  Yui said that there are many types of eggplant used in Thai cooking but the ones I liked best were about golf ball size and a pale green.  I accidentally made my curry a little too spicy (for my tastes) and will have to change this when I make it again.  Strangely, I never saw yellow curry anywhere in Thailand, which is what I always order in Thai restaurants here as it is my favorite.  Not sure why and I should have asked Yui about it.

After cooking (and eating) all three dishes, we took a field trip to Yui's local market where she buys much of her meat and produce.  It was really interesting having a guided tour through a local market by a local chef.  She explained all the strange things to us and one thing that I learned that was really fascinating is that all the "weird" foods we see that seem so gross and crazy to us (fermented months old eggs buried in the ground in alkali powder until they turn black, dehydrated tiny shrimps, etc.) were developed centuries ago as a way to preserve food when it was available because they obviously didn't have refrigeration and they also dealt with food shortages and scarcity and preserved whatever they could however they could so they would at least have something to eat when they ran out, even if it was freaky looking black jellified eggs that look freaky to us today.  It gave me an appreciation for the "delicacies" that make me gag when I see people shoving them down their gullets in food eating competitions on shows like survivor.

When I got back to our hotel, the girls had taken 3-hour long naps, which was perfect.  (And incidentally, Paul said he didn't mind sticking around for a slower morning with the girls while I did a cooking class since he got to do a couple of thai and cambodian massages on other days of the trip while I stayed back with the girls - to each his own and for me it's food.)

We headed into town before it got dark and just spent a few hours wandering and exploring, looking at souvenirs, getting another fish pedicure for Clara and Paul, and people watching.  We took a little break at some picnic tables and chairs set up in front of a stage and watched local girls dressed in formal Thai costumes perform traditional dances (or at least that is what it looked like to us) which was cool.  Our original plan had been to go to the lantern lighting ceremony at Mae Jo University, which is about 45 minutes north of town.  There are absolutely incredible images of thousands of lanterns going up in one big release there if you search it online.  But the traditional release there was cancelled this year because apparently it used to just be for locals who practice buddhism and has been increasingly overrun by tourists until finally this year they made it a tourist-only thing and started charging $150/ticket that you had to buy beforehand, which were mostly sold (so I was told) to chinese tour groups.  Since it has been free in the past and we didn't want to spend $300 on it (and we knew that lanterns would be released all over the city anyway) we opted for the town approach and I think we are glad we went that route.

We bought a krathong - it translates into "float" - which is a floating collection of flowers and banana leaves and candles that you light and set in the river to let it float away as a way of saying thank you to the river for the life it brings and apologizing for the harm done to it through the year by pour garbage and refuse into it.  No joke - more than one person explained it to me that way and I found a similar explain of the two reasons for Loy Krathong online.

Family photo op with our krathong before floating it.  We opted to float it before it got really dark, which a lot of people were doing.  There was what looked like a troop of boy scouts in khaki uniforms floating their krathongs together from a little platform over the water and we just joined them.

Eventually this man waded in and started setting krathongs in for people and pushing them out toward the middle of the river.

We eventually made our way to the Iron Bridge once it got really dark and started seeing lots of lanterns going up even though the official release wasn't supposed to happen until 9:00 p.m. and it was only about 7:30.  So we headed toward the bridge just north of the Iron Bridge (where we could tell most of the lantern releases were happening.  This first shot from farther away is from the Iron Bridge where a lot of people gathered to watch krathongs floating down the river and lanterns rising into the sky and the next shot was about halfway from the Iron Bridge to the other bridge (not sure what it's name was).

Once we made it to the other bridge, we decided to go ahead and light both of our lanterns too and send them up early.  It was amazing to watch them fill with hot air and then gently be pushed into the sky although more than one lantern was set aloft before it was really ready and would sink lower and lower toward the people packed on the bridge while people would screech warnings.  It only felt slightly dangerous though since everything was moving so slowly and there was plenty of time to move out of the way or give the lantern a little boost aloft again, so long as you were paying attention.  Yee Peng has a slightly different purpose from Loy Krathong.  It is about letting go of your worries and watching them drift away in the sky.  The girls were mesmerized and so were we.  And there was a collective energy in the crowd as we all craned our necks skyward, taking in the beauty and wonder of it all and feeling a shared sense of "we are all here, living this moment together" as cheesy as that sounds.  At least, that's how it felt to me.  Until the police showed up and started trying to get people to stop sending up lanterns early.  Not in a mean way or with any real effect.  I think they knew they were totally outnumbered and had no chance of really enforcing things, but they had to make a show of it.  Apparently the lanterns have disrupted air traffic in the past and that is why they instituted the 9:00 p.m. lighting time this year.

The girls did not want to help Paul push our lantern off once it was ready to go.  They were content with a little distance from the flaming ring of fire.

When we were planning this trip, we were thinking about Clara and how at 4 1/2 and with the background of having seen a floating lantern scene in Tangled and follow-up reinforcement of seeing pictures of our floating lantern experience, this might be one of her earliest memories.  I'm not sure about that now - I think that riding the elephants the day before will definitely be a memory for her since it is the part of our trip that she is still talking about and I keep overhearing her explaining the elephants to her preschool and gymnastics coaches - but I'm still so glad we planned the trip around this experience and got to be there for it.  It really was amazing to behold and be a part of.

We left around 8:30 or so when the girls were getting super tired and nabbed a tuk-tuk to take us back to our villa.  It was the perfect way to end our time in Chiang Mai but I think we were all looking forward to our next (and final) leg of the trip - the white beaches and cerulean water of Krabi in the island region of southern Thailand...


  1. Gorgeous, gorgeous shots! Did you use flash on those last ones with the lanterns? They're so well lit.

    1. No flash! I don't even have one. At least, I don't think we do and I wouldn't have a clue how to use it anyway. There was some kind of spotlighting set up at the end of the bridge where police barricades blocked traffic and that was illuminating things really well since we were facing away so it was sort of like studio lighting in a way, I think. :)


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