As is another theme for the trip, it was another early start, with more tired, cold and unhappy faces greeting me in the morning. We had smaller minibuses, and I found myself travelling down to Chiang Mai with only three others plus our CEO. Our first stop was just for coffee, but the second was the White Temple in Chiang Rai. This was an Art Project constructed in the mid 90’s and it first opened its weird Heaven vs. Hell plus a bit of purgatory and its famous Golden Toilet in 1997. If you’re finding this difficult to follow, don’t worry, so am I, and I have been there!
So the main structure was really very impressive, if a little strange. It was a bright white castle with beautiful detail and silvery grey arms and hands protruding from what I guess would be the moat surrounding the castle. Some of these hands were clutching alms bowls, some were empty and some had skulls grasped tightly in their bony fingers. In the rain and cold, it looked something of an ice fortress that wouldn’t have been out of place in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
This place was free to enter, but there were little things around that tempted you to part with your cash – there was a wishing fountain and a place where you could buy a “wish”, write whatever you like upon it and hang it from a tree, just like at Christmas. It would never be taken down, and looking around the “Heaven” part of the grounds, you could see that there were rows upon rows of these hanging metal wishes that made up the canopies. At the wishing well/fountain, I parted with a British penny that I had been carrying around in my purse for no other reason than I had nowhere to spend it. The story goes, that you should throw the penny backwards over your shoulder, and if it lands on the fountain, your wish will come true.
So – next on the list of weird things in this weird place – the Golden Toilet. We’d been told about this special Golden Toilet before, and that we should definitely use the bathroom here. I was expecting some kind of queue to a giant gilded golden throne hidden behind some wonderfully elaborately decorated doors, but it turns out there were just five or six cubicles of normal western standard toilets in a building that had golden sculptures on the outside. At the very least, there was soap and toilet roll and it smelled quite nice, so it was a pleasant experience, as far as going to the bathroom can be!
We continued down the road to Chiang Mai, whilst no one was naïve enough to hope the hotel would be any different to the one in Chiang Khong, the fact that our CEO had told us that he’d booked his wife and kids in to the same hotel, having not seen them for almost an entire month, I was quietly confident it would be an okay place to crash for a night. I was right. There were tell-tale signs as we approached the hotel through the rain. There were clear glass doors on entrance to the hotel, there was hot air blowing from an A/C unit behind reception and the lobby staff were not wearing scarves or gloves or full on bomber jackets. There was a lift, so we didn’t have to drag our luggage up four flights of stairs. It was all looking very promising. Nothing, however was as good as the look on my roommate’s face when I told her to stop what she was doing immediately and remove her shoes and socks. The tiled floor by the room’s entrance was heated! The feel of finally being able to get out of my wet shoes and socks and feel warm was overwhelming!
Whilst my roomie took a nap before our cooking class scheduled for that afternoon, I took the opportunity to have a shower and wash my hair after what felt like two weeks. The water was so hot that I had to jump out, get the temperature right and then try again. It was quite possibly the best shower experience of my trip to date. The only thing that disappointed me about this wonderful hour of relaxation was the thought of putting my jeans and hoodie back on again, but what’s a girl to do…?
I headed downstairs an hour earlier than necessary for the cooking class to grab a quick bite to eat and a medicinal shot of rum as I was now sneezing a lot. The steam of the shower had obviously cleared my sinuses out, but that had just resulted in my being a walking talking sneeze-fest. Anyway, there was a group of my lovely travel buddies sitting in the hotel restaurant, so I joined them just in time to order my first ever Thai green curry from Thailand. Although it took over an hour to arrive, and I had to inhale it quite quickly since we were already running late for the cooking class, it was mighty fine.
Our cookery teacher, Ouy (pronounced Oo-way)had turned up to take us to the market in her wonderful off-road truck kind of vehicle, and she stuffed as many of us as possible into the back of it, but checking us out before we were getting in. The reason for this became apparent because she had some space in the back of the actual car “section” and wanted to keep four smaller girls to sit in with her due to the incredibly limited leg-room. She was nothing short of delightful though, happy and smiley, her English was wonderful, she pointed out interesting things along the way, and she even taught us some phrases that may or may not come in handy for the remainder of our trip.
Ouy had given us cute little laminated menus to peruse along the way to the market and did a quick headcount as to who wanted what when we got there, buying the ingredients fresh, no longer than half an hour before we were due to cook them. Can you get any fresher than that? The menu was laid out with stereotypical Thai dishes on the left, with a more traditional option on the right, giving us a bit of variation if you fancied something a little bit different. I picked the following:
Pad Thai – Pad Suew
Green Curry – Massaman Curry
Tom Yam Soup – Chicken Coconut Soup
Mango Sticky Rice – Deep Fried Banana
On the short walk from the car to the market, Ouy’s shoe literally fell apart. It was a trainer, and the sole just came clean away; she was happy to continue walking through the puddled streets with one and a half shoes, but as with all markets in IndoChina, you can find anything if you just know where to look. We made her go and buy herself another pair of shoes as we waited under the canopy of the food market, taking in the sights and smells. Before we knew it, she was back with a brand new pair of Crocs on her feet, and we headed into vegetable land, via a tiny little café area where you could buy BBQ’d meat on skewers. She pointed out what she would be happy eating and what she would avoid touching with a bargepole which was really handy, but she did tell us that market food was not her favourite. After tasting he recipes, it was easy to see why.
Ouy pointed out which eggplants she favoured, explained the difference between red and green birds eye chillies (green are spicier), she showed us fresh lemongrass and told us although it gives great depth and flavour to dishes you cannot eat it due to its heavy fibrous make-up. She showed us galangal which is a root vegetable that looks similar to ginger and turmeric, but has a sweeter nuttier and altogether tangier flavour. She showed us different types of noodle that you can buy in both dry and soft form and was more than happy to explain what else was available if we had any questions. For example, someone asked what was in some plastic bags floating in a bucket with ice water, and she said with the straightest face “Oh, that? That’s chicken blood. We use it for thickening sauces.” I have to say, for a bunch of people all from the Western world, none of us batted an eyelid. We just listened attentively and moved on. I’m quite proud of us actually!
We went to a couple of different veg stalls, generally speaking, Ouy seemed to favour veggies from one guy and herbs and spices from another guy around the corner, and then our shopping was done and we headed to the Cooking School, which was attached to her house. It was a great little workspace with an area dedicated to preparing food, and on the other side of the room there were enough workstations for a stove each. We each prepped our own ingredients, cooked our own meal under careful guidance of course, and then ate our meals. And it was delicious. In between courses, she showed us her homemade cooking pastes and the method of grinding the spices together. I absolutely recommend Bhum’s Cooking School with her cute little aprons, complimentary drinks and door-to-door pick-up/drop-off service as one of the best in Chiang Mai!
Whilst I’d been seriously looking forward to the prospect of a ladyboy show, and even though I’d been fed a wonderful and healthy meal, I was feeling really groggy so I reluctantly headed back to the hotel, with the hope that after an early night, I’d feel magically better in the morning.