5 Senses Working Overtime

Bangkok is an assault to the senses with its traffic, heat, smells (the fish sauce is prettaaayyy pungent!), and will leave you exhausted after a few days. Nancy Chandler has an illustrated map of Bangkok (http://www.nancychandler.net/product.asp?pId=11) which is visually fun to look at, and great to help you navigate the sprawling city (I bought mine at Asia books in the Siam Paragon shopping center-BTS stop Siam). Your budget will determine where you stay- most of the affordable accommodations/hostels are on Khao San Road, while the 4-5 star hotels are along the Chao Phraya. Khao San is easily the craziest backpacker haven in SEA (which is saying something), so if you don’t want to party all night long and eat pad thai for 30 cents a pop, I’d look for accommodations elsewhere. Wherever you end up staying, make sure it’s accessible by the BTS or the Chao Phraya express boat- this will simplify your life during rush hour traffic. If you can’t get to where you want to go by the BTS or express boat (and it’s not rush hour), don’t hesitate to use the taxis. They are usually reliable, have AC and won’t break the bank. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the Jim Thompson House is a nice refuge from the chaos in the center of Bangkok, and provides you with an introduction to Thai textiles. There are also a few parks within the city which allow you to decompress or eat your street food sitting down- Lumpini is the largest park, and the Queens Park is another, smaller park. It’s entertaining to go around 6 pm when they play the King’s anthem, and all the Thai ladies come out to “exercise/dance.” Chatuchak Park is transformed into Chatuchak Market, aka JJ’s Market on the weekend and is a must-do/see. The market is open on Saturdays and Sundays, from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm and will take you 3-4 hours to fully navigate its labyrinth of food, clothing, furniture, and other random rinky-dink stalls. This is the place to do some serious souvenir shopping, and if you can’t do it here then you can stock up on just about anything your heart so desires at the 8-story MBK center (BTS stop National Stadium). For more authentic, and less-plastic items there’s still the night market in Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, and the Ben Than market in Saigon. The other major touristy-stops that you will want to check out are the Grand Palace, Wat Arun, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho. It’s very pleasant along the Chao Phraya at sunset, and some people even opt for a sunset cruise along the river, but I think it’s a bit over-priced and buggy. There are a few places to grab drinks across the river from Wat Arun, or you can go to the Sky Bar at the top of the Lebua or the Moon Bar if you’re not afraid of heights (you may need reservations for both) If you want an over the top dining experience while you’re in SEA, Bangkok is the city to do it in, but you really can’t go wrong whether you’re eating high or low end in Thailand. Here’s a list of a few of my favorite Thai dishes, so if you see them on a menu, check them out:

1.       Somtam Made from unripe, green papaya, green beans, tomatoes and whatever else the Thais want to add in, and dressed with a sweet, fishy dressing and topped with peanuts, this is one of the dishes that may seem bizarre to you at first, but it will grow on you. It’s spicy and sweet all at once and I’ve found that no somtam tastes the same – which just means you need to try it all.

*The Thais like to add dried shrimp or baby black crabs- if I were you, I’d avoid both versions!

somtam

2.       Tom Yum Goong- This Thai soup is a great combination of sweet, sour, salty and spicy. Be careful, though- it can be extremely spicy, and they don’t usually shell the shrimp which can make things tricky when using chopsticks. It has coconut milk as its base, and is flavored with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal root. Yum yum.

tom yum

3.       Gai Yang- your basic grilled chicken, but what makes it special is the chili sauce on the side. You should be able to find more of this dish in Northern Thailand, and the same carts will usually have other unidentifiable barbecue items on the grill. Don’t forget to pick up some sticky rice on the side, and also dip it in the chili sauce.

gai yang

4.       Khao Niew Ma Muang The papaya salad and mango and sticky rice are the two dishes that I miss the most from Thailand, because you can’t recreate them here the way you can other Thai dishes. The Thais make their sticky rice to perfection, and then pour a sweet and sticky coconut cream sauce on time. During mango season (late winter – early summer months), you should be able to find this just about anywhere, but the street stalls are of course the cheapest.

khao

5.       Itim Kati– Coconut ice cream filled with smaller bits of coconuts and served in a half-coconut shell. Incredibly refreshing on a hot day, and it should usually cost you less than a dollar.

itam kati

6.       Kao Man Gai– is perhaps Thailand’s most ubiquitous meal, and is served at special khao man gai stalls. You’ll know that this is what they are serving it if you see fried or boiled chicken on display, and the women ladling broth, and scooping up sticky rice. I like this meal because they literally use the chicken to make the soup and the rice. Served with a chicken broth and delicious sweet and spicy sauces, it’s a delicious snack that makes use of the whole chicken.

kao man gai

7.       Gai Med Ma Moung-The trifecta of chicken, cashew nuts, and chilis is amazing in this dish.  It’s even better in Southern Thailand where Phuket has some of the tastiest cashew nuts, and may even mix in pineapple.

gai med ma muang

8.         Massaman Curry– Massaman is the Thai word for “Muslim”, which is the community to heartily thank for this concoction of coconut milk, potatoes, roasted peanuts, bay leaves, sugar, cinnamon, and tamarind sauce. The meat of choice is often beef or chicken, but because it’s been embraced by the Buddhists, pork can also be found.

masa

9.       Yam Nua (Spicy Beef Salad)- Thailand’s yams or salads are zesty, and packed with a lot of flavor thanks to the spices and herbs used in the sauces.  Yam nua is my personal favorite with its mix of onion, coriander, spearmint, lime, dried chili and strips of beef, but really any of the yams are delicious.

yam nua

10.   Cha yen- Thai Iced Tea. This isn’t exactly a dish, but it might as well be, since you’ll feel full after drinking just one of these strangely orange beverages. You’ll either love it, or find it way too sweet. This drink is laced with sugar, and is the reason why all of my Thai students had terrible cavities or teeth falling out.

cha yen

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The Pearl of the North

Chiang Mai, or the “Pearl of the North” is where you can expect to uncover the true pulse of Thailand. The food is bolder, the people more hospitable (if that’s even possible), and the architecture more traditional. Many flock here from Bangkok to escape the big city, but don’t be surprised by Chiang Mai’s own size and modernity. Its unique cultural heritage is still present within the walls of the Old City (there is a wat on just about every corner), and high in the mountains. Wat Doi Suthep is one of Thailand’s most revered sights, and for those who make the trip to the top, it affords beautiful views of Chiang Mai. In the hills beyond Chiang Mai, many tribes have settled, most notably the Karen and Hmong. If you book a tour in Chiang Mai, most try to stop by one of the hill tribes. It’s interesting to gain a glimpse into their lives, or just to marvel at the length of the women’s necks or the way the grandmas eat betle nuts. The tour companies have a lot of flexibility, so depending on your preference you may want to expand one of the tour legs, and spend more time rafting, trekking, or visiting the hill tribes. Afterwards, you can book a traditional Thai massage at one of the places in town. During our stay, we went to Lila Thai massage nearly every day. It’s actually a rehabilitation center for women who are in prison, but don’t let a massage from inmates deter you from going. The ladies are all accommodating, and can give your travel weary body an impressive workout. Chiang Mai also offers the largest range of cooking schools in Thailand, with my personal favorite being the Thai farm cooking school. The school takes you to a local market where you are introduced to the different ingredients in Thai food, and afterwards you go to their organic farm outside the city to make a few signature Thai dishes (the commentary from our guide was enough to sell me on the school). You’ll find the food in Northern Thailand is slightly different from Central Thailand with its Burmese and Lao influences, and sticky rice and chili peppers are the norm in most dishes. If you plan on going to Chiang Mai towards the end of February or March, be prepared to encounter some serious smog from the farmers burning the fields before the growing season. The smog can leave your eyes stinging, and give you trouble with breathing. Make sure you visit the night market at least once while there, and if a festival is happening, DO NOT miss it. The Thais festivals are usually over the top with their vibrant costumes, decorations and food (Songkran and Loi Krathong are incredible). Lastly, if you have the luxury of time, Chaing Mai is a great starting point to head to Pai, Mae Hon Song, or anywhere along the Golden Triangle. You can take the bus or rent a motorbike (at your own discretion), and wind through rolling hills and emerald rice fields. If you get carsick I’d forego the trip to Pai- there’s 762 turns in the road to get there.

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