An abundance of cute cafes, walkable streets, a more pleasant climate and even lower prices than in Bangkok. Oh, and chicken Kha Soi. These are some of the things Jonathan loved so much about Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, that he could almost imagine living here. I can’t wait to see it and be introduced to his favorite places and local friends.
We arrive in the evening and simply walk the thirty minutes from the airport to our accommodation. The air is cooler than in Bangkok and much less humid. Crossing the moat that surrounds the old city we enter the heart of historic Chiang Mai and find our AirBnB in an alleyway just off the main road. Our unique accommodation for the next three nights is a hut on stilts made entirely of woven bamboo in the traditional Northern Thai Lanna style. It is small but very cosy. Luckily for us there is only one other guest in the complex. We can hear him coughing at night. Auditory privacy is the one thing missing here. The upside is hearing the birds in the morning and the striking of an iron bell well before dawn calling worshipers to a Buddhist temple nearby. Also, cat fights in the wee hours.
For breakfast I have my first Khao Soi from the little street food stand on the corner that our guesthouse recommended. It’s a creamy flavorful curry with soft noodles and a whole chicken drumstick, topped with crispy noodles. A hearty way to start the day!
After a walk around the old town looking into a few tempels and attractive arts and craft stores, the highlight of our day is Thai Akha kitchen. This cooking school is run by Niti, a friend Jonathan made the first time he came to Chiang Rai. He had rode a bicycle to the nearby national park, then had second thoughts about riding all the way back in the dark. Luckely, he was able to wave down a truck with four local women who did not hesitate to pack up his bike and chat up a storm with him all way back to the city. There they took him out for a drink and Niti and Faa have remained in touch with Jonathan ever since. The women are Akha, members of one of the so-called hill tribes, ethnic minorities living in the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand. Niti is a “boss lady”. She runs several successful businesses, among them coffee production and the aforementioned cooking school. Upon her generous invitation, we attend an evening class where we learn to cook some of the most traditional Thai as well as Akha dishes. We are blown away by the beautiful open air space of the school, meticulously decorated and with smoooth hardwood floors. We cook on gad burners whose flames create the shape of a lotus flower. Instructor Nikon is Akha himself and cheerfully and attentively leads us through every step of the process. We whip up a total of 11 dishes! We sample salads, soups, stir-fries, curries and desserts. Pungent and spicy Thai classics contrast with simple, fresh and healthy Akha fare. As we take breaks to eat each course, we get to know our fellow classmates. I get to be the honorary Asian at a table with April, a stewardess from South Korea, and Kumar and his girlfriend, a Pakistani couple raised in the UK and educated in the US, respectively, now living in Singapore together. Three and a half hours later we are stuffed and happy and sit down in the courtyard with Niti and her Italian partner Svevo and their gorgeous, cuddly, entirely out-of-place Husky Puffy. Astonishingly, this fluffy, heavily insulated Arctic seems to have genuinely acclimatized to Thailand. Things get even more quirky when Niti points to the tuk tuk parked outside – two passenger benches inside a metal frame on wheels attached to the side of a motorcycle. Jonathan doesn’t hesitate, jumps on the bike and takes me and Puffy for a ride around the block. “I’m driving a Husky in a TukTuk around Chang Mai!” he exclaims. We break out laughing. Oh my Buddha!