the nothing whatever...

Chang Mai and Thai Farm Cooking School

The 18 hour bus ride to Chiang Mai was even more tedious than the 26 hour bus ride to Luang Prabang. For some reason, sleeper buses do not operate that route, and as such, not only are you in an upright seat that offers limited flexibility (at least in comparison to the sleeper bus seats), but it almost seems like the priority of the driver and his posse to make sure you do not sleep for longer that two hours straight. They would stop for a cigarette every hour or so, and when they did, for some reason they thought it essential to turn on every light in the bus and yell something indecipherable at the top of their lungs, maybe it was “toilet!”, but stopping every hour for a toilet break is a bit overkill. Somehow, we eventually managed to drift into a borderline state of consciousness (I won’t call it sleep because it really wasn’t) and at about 5:30am, like the tuning of a radio, my hearing began to focus in on these extremely loud harsh barking noises that were surrounding us, really ugly sounds, like how the aliens speak on the movie “Mars Attacks”. Every so often there would be a cackle of laughter from the seats at the front, and when I opened my eyes I saw that all the drivers had switched the TV onto what looked like a live show of the Asian version of The Three Stooges, only with a lot more cross-dressing, toilet humor, and bare arse. There was a skit playing where one of them was meant to take a giant cardboard syringe to his bum from the ladyboy nurse, and while the nurse and the assistant were holding him down and taking his pants off to expose his cheeks (cringe-worthily inappropriate), he kept chickening out at the last second, causing the entire scene to be played out over and over and over again, much to the enjoyment of the group of drivers. I had little problem with what they were watching, their taste is their taste, but it was the volume at which they were playing their ridiculous show that was just so unbelievable. It was just so comically high, as if they didn’t want their intentions to keep us awake at all costs to be misinterpreted. There was just no other way to see it, that is what they had set out to do, and that was how they had decided they would do it. Looking at the frayed hair and red sunken eyes around me, I could see that everyone was thinking the same thing – “what the hell are these guys doing?”. I can only think that there must just be two categories of bus in SE Asia, the sleeper bus and the no-sleeper bus.

But, we got here, and Chiang Mai has made it all worth it. As with Luang Prabang, impressive monumental golden temples and orange-robed Buddhist monks are everywhere, even if the setting is quite a bit busier. Just walking the streets is a reminder that we are not in Kansas anymore, and that is something I like. The Thai people in general have a similar placid and friendly nature to the Indonesians, responding extremely well to a smile and a joke, and returning politeness with sincerity and appreciation. It might not be the same in other areas of Thailand, but in Chiang Mai it is definitely the case, and it makes it easy to find out information and make small connections with the local people. This may sound stupid, but I had completely forgotten that Thailand was the home of Thai food. Obviously I knew where Thai food originated, but eating millions of green curries and red curries, pad thai and khao soi, tom yum and tom kha in Sydney must have subliminally planted a geographical marker in my head telling me that Thai food is associated with home. So when we began walking the streets, I was in heaven when I realized that, of course, you can get an authentic Thai red curry for about a dollar, complete with its intensity of lemongrass, kaffir lime, chilli and all those other flavors that are the reason everybody loves Thai, and the reason half the restaurants on the Lower North Shore are Thai restaurants. And, even with what I thought was some pretty intricate knowledge of what Thai food is, it has surprised me with a few things as well. Kaap muu is salted pork crackling (pork rind), a traditional Thai dish and something that I could eat my body weight of, and the street vendors also do quality fried chicken parts, these fatty bites ensuring that I regain a fair share of the weight I lost in Laos without much trouble.

The first few days here, as with the first few days we spend in most places, were just spent exploring, drinking and eating, which, as fun as it is, you grow tired of. So, on the third day, we decided to book a tour with a company called “Untouched Thailand”, something that would get us seeing things we had not already seen and doing things we had not already done. We chose the “extreme” tour because we are extreme people; this involved a trip to the snake farm to watch a man kiss a King Cobra on the face, zip lining from tree-to-tree in the heart of the Thai jungle, out of season white-water rafting, riding elephants and seeing how paper is made from their shit, and visiting the long-neck and big-ear hill-tribe people. I had never done any of these extreme things before, and they were all to be done in a ten hour window. An extremely extreme day, too extreme to fit all in one blog entry, so rather than go through everything, I will just record some of the more extreme moments below. [Just reading over the moments I have wrote about before I send it all out, and I realized it doesn't do justice to the amount of fun we actually had on the tour - in one story I get the shit scared out of me, and the other is quite depressing. For some reason, I seem to find it easier writing about the emotional lows than I do the highs, so this is not reflective on the quality of our guides and the experience in general, because it was all top notch. “Untouched Thailand” gets a thumbs up.]

More recently, we enrolled in the Thai Farm Cooking School with a lady named Goong, and learned how to make about 10 different dishes between us. She came and collected us at 8:30am and drove us out to the markets to collect the ingredients and learn about produce, as is the case with all of the schools we have enrolled in thus far. One thing I will say about the Thai markets is that they are probably the cleanest I have seen, and also had the most “eat-on-the-spot” food out of all the markets I have seen, so you could actually entertain yourself even if you are not a local doing their grocery shopping or a street vendor buying in bulk. I bought some kaap muu (I told you, I can’t help myself) but I need not have worried because the amount of food we ended up cooking and eating honestly made me feel like I was solely responsible for world hunger.

We first made the pastes. We got to choose one of three, a green curry paste (medium spice, Nic’s choice), a yellow curry paste (low spice), or a red curry paste (high spice, my choice). Goong also asked us for each of the pastes if we wanted “Euro-spicy” or “Thai-spicy” so she could distribute chilli accordingly, and, of course, I chose Thai-spicy. To me, it was a no-brainer, but Goong was ecstatic she had someone in the class who liked the spicy stuff, and gave minor sledges to the other two boys (saying that the one making the yellow curry was making baby food, just a couple of minutes after calling him out on having ladyboy hands). This was one of the many instances where she alluded that I was the best in the class. Another was when we made our Tom Yum Goong (quick fact: her name means prawn in the Thai language) and, as means of demonstration as to how the dish should taste, she offered mine to somebody else, describing it, from memory, as “perfect”. And, yet another was when we were eating our curries around the table, and took a glance at my red curry, stopped, looked around a little hesitantly, ran and got herself a spoon, and got stuck into it, nodding with satisfied approval. In case you haven’t gotten the point of this paragraph yet, all I am saying is that I am simply the best, better than all the rest, better than anyone, anyone I’ve ever met…

…except when it comes to frying things in the wok, I really suck at that. Oh, and of course, spring rolls. And pretty much anything else that requires delicacy and finesse.

With Thailand having such a well-known and accessible culinary culture that, done well, probably offers some of the best flavors in the world, I really can’t wait to try out my new knowledge on some unsuspecting visitor (or host) when I get to a place that has its own kitchen. Perhaps it will be the Sand-Youltens of Abu Dhabi, and I will have to multiply all the quantities by a thousand to feed all the hungry bellies. Perhaps it will be the Yankee-Youltens over in LA, but I am well aware that Mike can use the kitchen quite well when he wants to (I have memories of a Thai-beef salad that was so delicious it made me forgot about the ringlets of chilli boring holes clean through my tongue) and I am probably only going to display novice skills to an intermediate(!?) chef. Or maybe I won’t get to show off until Canada, as making a friend (or an enemy) is best done in the kitchen. But the one thing that I am really looking forward to is Nic trying out her newly learned skills on me, even if it is just creating her fluffy and crunchy spring rolls. Yummo!