Meditating, Exploring, and Eating Our Way Through Chiang Mai

We spent a month in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a month filled with flavor, culture, and a new sense of tranquility
Thai number 9 for the departed king Bhumibol Adulyadej

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I firmly believe in the transformational power of travel, food, and silence. Our month in Chiang Mai combined the three. Each time Mark and I undertake a silent meditation retreat, returning to the “real world” comes with a bit of magic.

Thailand temple drawing

“Thailand is safe. If you see anybody wearing camouflage holding a machete, don’t be scared. They sell coconuts.”

– Bobby Lee

From silence to a celebration

Our Thai adventure began at the Dhamma Simanta, a vipassana meditation center in the northern highlands, where we spent 10 days in silence. We woke up at 4:30 in the morning and meditated for 10 hours each day. It was both challenging and liberating. To read more about our experiences with meditation retreats, have a look here: Silent meditation retreat: What it is, How much it costs and Why to do it, and also 17 Steps to Make Meditation Retreat Easier.

When the retreat ended, a lovely girl offered us a ride to Chiang Mai, one of the most vibrant towns in Thailand. The center, called the “Old City”, is protected by a 700-year-old wall and moat. She dropped us off at the West Gate and we were swept into the Old City by a procession of ladies in traditional, festive garb, carrying towers of flowers, and found ourselves in the midst of a parade. Of course, we pretended the whole shebang was there just for us and indulged in a fleeting illusion of celebrity. So much for the dissolution of our egos through meditation. What a glorious welcome!

We booked a private room in the Old City for $6 per night. The guesthouse was modest, but its rooftop deck was an urban oasis, with comfy chairs, loungers, and hammocks. This was our spot, the perfect place to fuel up with breakfast, devour books, scroll through the interwebs, and swap tales with fellow wanderers.

We had the privilege of experiencing three events that were not only incredibly beautiful and deeply moving but are not likely to appear in this constellation ever again: The candle ceremony for the passing of the king, the Yi Peng lantern festival, and the Loy Krathong water festival.

As we wandered the bustling streets that first afternoon, our eyes were drawn to a hauntingly beautiful sight. A sea of people were placing candles on the ground, paying tribute to their recently departed, beloved king who had reigned for 70 years. The roads were closed off for this solemn occasion, and we felt a sense of reverence as we watched the scene unfold.

The symbol made of candles began to take shape, a beautiful representation of the Thai number nine, signifying the ninth monarch. We were handed lighters to help light each and every one. It was an honor to play a part in something so meaningful. As it got dark and all the candles were lit, we stood among the crowd and witnessed something truly profound. People openly wept, singing and mourning their loss, united in their grief and love for their king. Despite the sadness, there was also a sense of unity and resilience.

The second magical event that we experienced was the annual Lantern Festival or Yi Peng. It takes place in November during the full moon and celebrates the end of the rainy season and the start of the harvest. Thousands of people gather with giant, delicate paper lanterns in hand. When the sun sets, they light the candle that’s attached to the bamboo frame of the lantern, let it fill with hot air, and let it lift up into the night sky.

When we walked to the river that evening, the air was thick with incense and the sound of chanting monks. The flames of candles cast a warm glow on people’s faces and the sky was dotted with lanterns, a mesmerizing display that seemed to stretch on forever.

Yi Peng was not the only spectacle in town. On the same night, Chiang Mai plays host to another of Thailand’s most magical festivals – Loy Krathong. People gather around the rivers, canals, and lakes and launch their krathongs (small floating baskets made of banana leaves and decorated with flowers, candles, and incense) into the shimmering waters to pay homage to the water goddess. As the krathong floats away, they make a wish and let the water carry away their past mistakes and misfortunes.

I felt a sense of awe and wonder and realized that no matter how small we may feel in the grand scheme of things, we have the power to create something beautiful.

A new world of fruits

We arrived in Chiang Mai with a hunger for new experiences and a curiosity for the flavors of northern Thailand. The city promised to be a playground for the senses. As we wandered through the streets, the scents of lemongrass and coconut floated through the air, mingling with the pungent aroma of fish sauce and the sweetness of palm sugar. Every morning, we rambled down to the local market, and amidst the colorful chaos, we found a mother load of exotic fruits, some already cleaned and portioned, each tray costing less than a dollar. We would then climb the stairs to the roof terrace of our guesthouse and marvel at the flavors and textures of our ripe, juicy bounty.

We’ve eaten plenty of mangoes, pineapples, watermelons, coconuts, and papayas back home, but in Thailand, they’re on a whole different level. However, it was the unfamiliar fruits that piqued our interest the most.

The soft, almost translucent segments of the longkong fruit tasted like a grape with a tinge of grapefruit. The mangosteen had the flavor of peach and strawberry laced with a spritz of an exotic flower. Dragon fruit, a member of the cactus family, looked like something out of a sci-fi movie, with its vibrant pink skin and green spikes, having a texture both crunchy and creamy, and a delicate kiwi and pear flavor.

And then there’s durian, a fruit that’s not for the faint of heart. Some people say it smells like heaven, others like raw sewage. Hotels and airlines ban it from their premises. But regardless of your opinion on the aroma, one thing is certain: the taste is like nothing else on earth. The custard-like flesh is nutty and fruity, with a hint of cheese and even a little bit of garlic.

Durian is a divisive fruit. Some loath it, some love it. I am firmly in the “love it” camp. My relationship with it started in Chiang Mai. Later on, when we were in Bangkok, and I heard about an all-you-can-eat durian festival, I knew I had to be there. I mean, who wouldn’t want to plunge headfirst into a pile of fruit that’s considered too offensive for polite society? Of course, not everyone was as enthusiastic. While I arrived, saw, and conquered, eating more than I ever have before or since, the hubby opted to go for a walk far from the fragrant event.

If you’re looking for a delicious pick-me-up, a fresh fruit smoothie will do the trick. The juice stands in Chiang Mai may look simple but the vendors know how to whip up amazing drinks from any combination of fruits you choose.

If you’re ever in Thailand, do yourself a favor and explore the fruit markets and juice stalls. You might just discover what a real, ripe piece of fruit should taste like and find your new favorite.

Mission: Street food

We soon discovered that Chiang Mai had a rich and diverse food scene, from street food stalls to high-end restaurants and a vibrant coffee culture. You have to try the sock-brewed coffee stalls. It involves a cloth filter called “the sock” (not to be confused with your clothing essentials), a very strong coffee laced with spices, and condensed milk. We had no problem finding these coffee stands, we just followed our noses.

As for meals, Mark and I had a mission: find the most delectable street food Chiang Mai had to offer. We had no plan and no guidebook. We approached street food vendors with curiosity and an open mind. We had no idea what we were ordering but that didn’t matter. We were in for the experience. One by one, we were sampling our finds, spicy or sweet, bold and complex, giddy as only good food can make you. We often followed kids when the schools let out, they always led us to the least expensive and most delicious snacks.

Allan and Fanfan from Life Less Ordinary have a nice overview of the 50 most common Thai street foods.

We sampled grilled meats on skewers with sauces. Oh, the sauces! Sweet and sticky, spicy and tangy, they’ll make you want to lick your fingers clean. We slurped up bowls of soup, with tender noodles swimming in a fragrant, spicy broth. We watched as vendors prepared papaya salad, pounding the ingredients with a mortar and pestle until they melded together in a harmonious blend of sour, spicy, and sweet. We saw them making Pad Thai in massive woks, tossing and flipping, and throwing in handful after handful of sugar. One of the specialties of the region is khao soi, a coconut curry noodle soup, with a rich and creamy broth, tender pieces of chicken, and crispy noodles on top, a perfect comfort food.

Sometimes the best meals are the ones that you stumble upon with a sense of adventure as you go forth and bite into the unknown.

Cooking up a storm at a local farm

Thai cuisine is one of my absolute favorites, so, for my birthday, Mark surprised me with a day trip to a cooking school on at a nearby farm. It was a total blast. We met up with a firecracker of a girl named Pui who took us to a local market where she introduced us to some of the ingredients we’d need for the dishes. Then she drove us out of town to a beautiful, lush farm, where we got our hands dirty picking the rest of our ingredients straight from the earth.

The other students and ourselves gathered around a big wooden table in a lovely, open-air kitchen, and began by learning how to make 6 different kinds of curry paste. Mark chose Massaman and I made my favorite, Penang (or “baby curry”, as Pui called it because the added peanuts make it taste milder). It was no easy feat. It took some serious elbow grease to mash all those ingredients together with the mortar and pestle. It’s well worth the effort though, the flavor is amazing and you can make extra to keep in the fridge for weeks.

We also made an insanely blue tea from butterfly pea flowers, that we would later use to add some pizzaz to our mango sticky rice dessert.

After the curry paste was done, we each took our stations around the U-shaped cooking area with Pui right in the center somehow directing ten different people cooking several different recipes at the same time. First, we made our appetizers and sat down to enjoy them, marveling at our budding skills and talents. Then it was on to the soup and the main course. Mark’s curry was a culinary triumph and a near-catastrophe.

Our cooking class was going swimmingly, with each dish better than the last. But then came the main course, the curry. Mark got a little too excited at the sight of those little chilies when making his Massaman paste, or maybe he wanted to show off his spice tolerance. Whatever the case, he used them with abandon, creating a dish that was positively infernal.

After a spoonful of his curry, Mark immediately turned a shade of red not commonly seen in a human. Sweat poured down his face, and we all watched as he was reassuring us that he was completely fine. After this self-inflicted culinary ordeal, we all made our desserts which were as beautiful as they were delicious. Then we all lounged on the lawn chatting about our kitchen triumphs and travel adventures.

I was blown away. Maybe it was the fresh air or the vibe of the farm, but everything tasted as if it came straight out of a top-notch restaurant. I was seriously impressed with myself.

Temple tranquility

Chiang Mai offered plenty of opportunities for exploration beyond the food. The temples, with their intricate carvings and gilded statues, showed off the artistry of the local people. They’re everywhere. In the middle of the city, on mountaintops, or deep in the jungle, you’ll never be too far from a temple. Wear clothes that cover your shoulders and knees when visiting, out of respect for the local customs.

You’re likely to see Buddhist monks in their orange robes going about their daily routines and performing their rites and rituals, the smell of incense in the air. They are generous with their time if you’d like to talk to them.

We spent a month in Chiang Mai and I found myself falling in love with it. I so get why expats flock here. The city is warm, vibrant, and addictive, with kind and easy-going people. You can lose yourself in the flavors, scents, and colors, or take a quiet moment to reflect in the coolness of a temple. As we prepared to leave, I felt a mix of sadness and gratitude. I was once again reminded that the world is complex and beautiful and people are lovely.

A video of our time in Chiang Mai

Our month in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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