Visiting the wats of Northern Thailand can be overwhelming at first, given the density and opulence of the Lan Na decor: colourful glass mosaic inlay and mulberry painted wooden beams and doorways, quivering golden prayer flags hung from heavy beams above, Jade Buddhas and mummified monks too real to believe. These images were taken at various wats around Chiang Mai and Lampang, around 100 kms north-east of Chiang Mai and other smaller towns of the old Lan Na kingdom. The wats are beginning to blur. Chiang Mai calls.
Thursday is now the day to indulge in travel memories, courtesy of the photographic prompts from wordpress. Today’s prompt is Dense.
The tiny town of Chiang Khan is built along the Mekong River in northern Thailand, facing Laos on the other side. In the last few years, the city has embraced its heritage: all the old teak shops are now being restored, with financial encouragement from the Thai government.
During the week, the town is quiet. Come Friday night, Thai tourists arrive from Bangkok hoping to stay in a restored teak hotel along the river or sip tea amidst a sea of retro antiques. It is this sense of nostalgia for the past and loss of old Thailand that draws them here.
Fabric speaks to me. I collect it, stash it, feel it. Antique European linens, worn Irish cloth, functional and timeless, faded Ikat from Java, Sumatra and Flores, woven wall hangings from Myanmar, mid-century Japanese Kimono sprinkled with shibori, or little fabric offcuts featuring sacred cranes, plush velvet Italian betrothal bedspreads, alive with colour and kitsch cherubin, or hand worked pillow cases and curtains from the antique market in Arezzo in Italy, embroidered table cloths, ancient filet crochet edging with worked in stories, words or historical events, crocheted jug covers featuring Dolly-Varden shells and beaded weights, Indian silk saris and long dupatta scarves, visiting every floor of a Sari shop in India: fabric hunting is a central part of my journey. It is often the history of women’s work, or a window into a culture, or one that is about to become obsolete, that appeals so much.
Hand dyed indigo fabric is a recent addition to my textile addiction. I discovered some wonderful indigo fabrics at the Chatuchak ( Cha-Cha) Market in Bangkok in 2013. The following year, I toured an indigo factory in Dali, on the banks of Erhai Lake, Yunnan, China. And this year, I found another small producer of hand died indigo clothing on the banks of the Mekong River, in Chiang Khan, Thailand, as well as some lovely long lengths of deep indigo died linen in the back streets of the Warorot market, in Chiang Mai.
Indigo Factory, Lake Erhai, Dali, Yunnan, China.
My next step is to learn this ancient art and dye my own cloth. I envisage drifts of indigo muslin, irregular in colour, floating in the summer breeze.Thanks Ailsa for this week’s travel theme, Fabric, at Where’s My Backpack. If I dug out all the representatives of my fabric collection, this post might fill a book.
I haven’t adjusted to the cold of Melbourne’s Spring weather. Spring is so overrated: there isn’t much difference between the first month of Spring and Winter, except for the presence of daffodils. Unlike Wordsworth, daffodils don’t make me feel gay or jocund, nor do I have time to lie on the couch “in vacant or in pensive mood” thinking about them! A bunch or two of nodding yellow flowers improves the decor, but hardly makes up for the perennial grey of sky that seeps into the dark recesses of the psyche.
To counter this dullness of season and mood, I’m mentally returning to Thailand to complete some unfinished business. Let me introduce Nan, the proprietor of Taste from Heaven restaurant, in Chiang Mai.
Nan owned a Thai restaurant in the Gold Coast, Australia for many years before returning to her home town to open Taste from Heaven some years ago. She is a gracious front of house, keeping a careful eye on the flow of customers, engaging pleasantly with them, as well as being involved in the daily running of the restaurant. I returned to Nan’s “Heaven” at least 7 times whilst in Chiang Mai. To be truthful, I really didn’t want to go anywhere else.
If you are in need of sunshine, warmth or a metaphorical daffodil, these lovely dishes might offer consolation.
We tried so many dishes from the menu and usually ordered far too much. The size of the dishes at ‘Heaven’ are larger than the usual Thai offerings. Often as a starter, to go with a chilled beer, we ordered Grilled Mushrooms with Peanut sauce. I never asked Nan about the mushroom species but they were large and ‘meaty’. The deep-fried Angel mushrooms (below) were also rather ‘moreish’.
We usually shared two or three mains after one entrée, along with rice. At ‘Heaven’ you choose between steamed jasmine rice, in white, brown or black. They are all good. Below, I have featured a few of the sensational dishes we tried. More can be found on my post here.
The eggplant salad was my favourite. I remember the first time I tasted this dish in Narathiwat in 1995; the taste has lingered all these years. The key element is the smoked Thai baby eggplant which are then skinned and lightly mashed, retaining their smoky juices which blend so well with the lime juice and herbal elements. I mentioned to Nan that this dish is slowly disappearing from Thai menus, or if it does turn up, it lacks the oomph provided by the smoke, raw garlic and mint.
They also run a cookery school, three hours, for 100o baht pp. Sadly, Nan’s assistant was away for a month and so I missed out. Next time for sure.
At the time of writing, the exchange rate was around 25 Baht to the Australian dollar. Most plates cost around $3-4, with rice at around $1.
Thank you Nan for the delightful food memories.
Taste from Heaven Vegetarian Restaurant
34/1 Ratmakka Road,
T. Prasinhg A. Muang,
Chiang Mai 5020
Open every day from9am to 10pm (except Wednesday 9am to 9pm)
The main thing you will notice when strolling down the main street of the small village of Chiang Khan, Northern Thailand, is that the town has turned retro! The street running parallel to the Mekong River, is lined with teak buildings that have been beautifully restored, and most of these – shops, guest houses, restaurants and tea houses- proudly display an eclectic collection of retro decor. The era is mostly 60s and totally kitsch. Open any of the photos below and delight in retro madness.
Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?
The municipality won the year 2010 architectural conservation award from Architect Council of Thailand. Since that year, more than 2000 old teak houses and shops along the main road, Thanon Chai Khong and nearby lanes, have been registered with the municipality’s architectural campaign, with over 600 receiving grants to renovate. This, in the era of the uniform concrete block house, is delightful to see. The young and well-heeled from Bangkok swarm here on the weekends, to stay in ‘original’ old houses with matching decor. The young are embracing Thai architectural history they barely remember, the old teak house, which is now missing from big cities.
During the day, the town is sleepy, with only a few restaurants and coffee houses open for business. In the late afternoon, the main street transforms into a walking market, although the number of stalls vastly increases on Friday and Saturday nights when the young city folk arrive in mini buses from down south.
The other welcome feature is that the main street and series of 20 or so perpendicular lanes, are devoid of through traffic. Here the bicycle rules and has become the town logo.
You won’t find backpacker travellers here or westernised food, no pancakes or pizzas, and very little spoken English. If you go, take your Thai phrase book. There are a couple of great restaurants in town that do offer a menu in English, the best being Faikam, which does wonderful versions of most Thai favourites. The average cost for a double room, with aircon and bathroom, facing the Mekong River starts at around 600 Baht per night ( AU $24.00).
How to get there. Fly into Loei, with Air Asia, from various big cities in Thailand, then take a mini van from the airport to Chiang Khan. Or, go, as we did, along the Mekong river by car, from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan, one of the great road trips of Asia.
Today I went to the market in Nong Khai and bought some treasure for my kitchen back home in Australia. I tried very hard to exercise restraint but some things have found their way into my luggage. I am sure they are weightless.
I bought this little rice steamer from an 82 year old woman who pointed to her stomach, then to mine, and told me that I needed to exercise, like her. What, am I that fat? Must be the Chang beer or maybe the Pad See Ew. After we mimed our way through this funny episode, she handed me some change, a little local and unasked for discount! I loved this Ka Tip Khao so much, I went and bought another from the Sadet market. The young folk working in the kitchen ware shops laughed hysterically, seeing it draped over my shoulder like a handbag. Why? Another crazy conversation in Thai followed. You have to laugh.
I then bought a lovely rice serving bowl for a few dollars. It’s very light weight, and I can always shove my undies inside it for the journey home. One can always justify some purchases! Like these cute little blue cups below, just two for a dollar, which can fit inside the rice bowl.
I found a shop dedicated to painted rooster ware. It’s nice to specialise!
I purchased this little saucer for my kitchen for 30 cents and now regret not buying a few more for small gifts.
Thai, and Asian markets in general, always remind me of my intense desire to set up an outside Warung, or small street kitchen, back at home. I’ve had this desire since 1979, the first time I went to Indonesia and the feeling just gets stronger. I gazed longingly at these wok burners on stands, and have about 50 photos of them, all different models. Heaven on a stand. I am sure I can pick one up in Melbourne although at a cost! My Warung will be made in time for this summer.
Then these little beauties caught my eye. They are the heavy metal Darth Vader model of charcoal burners. You may have seen these in the past: they came as cement filled buckets or in terracotta forms. I want one badly.
It is great to see that Thailand is still making these highly decorated kitsch enamel ware plates. They are not in the same street as the old, collectable Chinese ones, Nancy, but they do wear nicely and gather a bit of patina. I didn’t buy any- now how’s that for discipline!
This In My Kitchen post comes directly from Nong Khai, in the North East of Thailand, a small town that stretches along the banks of the Mekong river facing Laos, a parallel universe across the bank. But now I’m in my last few days here, and I long for my home kitchen, and a Pizza would go down very nicely too.
Thanks Celia, the hostess with the mostess, for this enjoyable monthly event. Head to Fig Jam an Lime Cordial for further kitchen inspiration.
The Mekong river flows steadily below my veranda, muddy and expansive, treacherous and mesmerizing. In the warm mists of early morning, a lone fisherman balances on the deck of his long tailed boat, a giant rod held horizontally as nets are cast. He drifts with the fast moving current.
The day opens gently in Chiang Khan: the oppressive heat of the afternoon is a distant thought. In the teak guest house next door, the sounds of Thai opera waft across the deck, and a man lounging on a daybed sings along. We are close to a Wat: the early morning prayer and response is suitably soporific. Over the way lies Laos, so close and yet, at this point in the river, so different from Thailand. The village on the opposite bank is enclosed by dense jungle and hills: shanty villages with early morning cooking smoke rising above the trees, and the familiar pointed roof of a Wat just visible in the distance.
At this point, crossings to Laos are not possible: there are few signs that the locals bother either, although locals with border passes may do so. International tourists require a visa: from this part of Northern Thailand, obtainable at Nong Khai to Vientiane or further west at Chong Mek to Vang Tao.
I have always yearned to take the great travel adventure of a lifetime, travelling on all forms of river transport down the length of the mighty Mekong through five countries, but I suspect that time has run out.
Ten years ago we spent time on the Mekong in Luang Prabang, one of the finest spots in Laos, and then travelled by long tailed boat for two days up the Nam Ou river, a tributary of the Mekong, then stayed for a week in the village of Mung Ngoi in simple bamboo huts by the river. I hear that life is still the same in that lush, tropical valley, where young men travel up stream in the dark, watching for the glow of tiger eyes along the banks.
On that journey, we also caught up with the Mekong at Phnom Penh in Cambodia, a town that has changed for the better over the last ten years. My photos of this era have sadly been lost.
If I had ‘world enough and time’, I would chase that Mekong river from its source in Tibet, down through five countries, to its wide delta in Vietnam, but I doubt that this will happen; I am content with the river running by me now.
I make many assumptions when writing about Thailand- one of the worst slips is to lapse into local terminology for things, assuming that they are common words in English, and then I realise that they probably aren’t.
The following little guide is for Chiang Mai and regional cities throughout Thailand. Thai beaches in Phuket and other beaches tend to be very westernised places catering to foreign needs. Thai culture is almost lost in these towns. This list is for the traveller, not the beach sun baker or the resort frequenter.
What is a Wat?
Temples are called Wats, coming from the Sanskrit word for enclosure, and are places of worship for Buddhists. In northern Thailand, especially around Chiang Mai and Lampang, Wats are distinguished by the Lanna style of architecture. You will notice many similar features to the Pagodas of Burma and the Wats of Laos.
Wats will usually contain a golden Chedi, a conical or bell-shaped building, similar to the Nepalese Stupa , which often contains sacred relics. The Chedi is usually in the grounds of the enclosure and is separate from the temple or temples.
Wats are often large compounds containing schools for monks, a monastery, a garden, a large Bodhi tree and shaded areas to sit and relax. They are relaxed places and provide a welcome shady break from the busy streets.
Wats often also house museums, sometimes a cafe, and stalls selling religious items such as amulets, candles and flowers. They are really busy on the weekend so consider visiting Wats dring the week.
They are public spaces and welcome foreigners. It is polite to make a small donation ( say around 20 Baht) and to drop your spare coins in the ‘days of the week’ boxes or monks’ bowls.
Notes for Travellers visiting a Wat in Thailand.
You must remove your shoes before entering a Wat. Consider the type of footwear you will wear when doing a day touring the wats. Shoes with ties or elabourate clasps will become annoying. Wear thongs or scuffs. This is the preferred daytime footwear of the locals.
Shoes are also removed when visiting people’s homes, in guesthouses, many shops and businesses but keep them on in restaurants. Be guided by what you see.
Spotto the annoying shoes in these photos below.
Dress modestly. This applies in the churches of Europe: the same respect applies to the temples (Buddhist or other) in Asia. Modest dress is a sign of humility. Put the shorts and singlets away and keep them for the beach. Most temples will, for a small fee, supply some cover up clothing for those who have turned up in their beach wear. It is much better and simpler to be conscious of the customs of the country you are visiting. Below, a sign outside a Wat, and a young European couple, oblivious to the offence they cause. Cultural ignorance or cultural arrogance? I wonder sometimes.
You will often find a well signed toilet within the grounds. Handy information! Always carry your own tissues, however most Thai toilets now have paper, are super clean and modern.
Sometimes scammers hang around temples. They are usually very well dressed and have an excellent grasp of English. This used to happen around Chiang Mai but I haven’t noticed any on this trip. They are still rife in Bangkok. Don’t respond to any unsolicited, polite greetings, just don’t acknowledge them. Breaking out into another language, real or made up, is another strategy.
Inside the walls.
When choosing a place to stay, look at the map of Chiang Mai before choosing. Chiang Mai’s ancient city lies inside a square, the city’s ancient walls still visible here and there, along with a moat. Most of Chiang Mai’s attractions lie within these walls: great restaurants, good footpaths, parks, markets, the sunday walking Market, the Saturday night market, a hundred Wats, and a vibrant cosmopolitan and artistic community.
Big international resort hotels are not located in the ancient city. They are out in the busy traffic clogged suburbs or along the Ping River. You might like the look of these western places but will be forced to negotiate daily or thrice daily for a tuk-tuk to and fro back into the old city. If you like the thrill of spontaneous wandering and discovery, choose a place to suit your budget within the old city walls.
Below, Map of Chiang Mai, showing the walls of the old city and outskirts near the Ping River.
A little bit of Thai language.
These two phrases go a long way.
Hello – Sawa dee
Spoken by males – Cup / Females – Ka (“sawadee ka” for females and “sawadee cup” for males)
If you are female, draw our the ka with a long breathy sound: if male, the cup sound is very clipped.
Thank you very much
kob kun cup (male) , kob koon Ka (female)
Cup / Ka, can be said at the end of any sentence, it is a sign of respect and regarded as the polite form of these expressions.
Just call me a creature of habit, but when I find a lovely place to stay, there really isn’t any reason to ‘shop around’. In Chiang Mai I always return to the 3 Sis Vacation Lodge. This modest sized boutique hotel is run by three charming sisters who are helpful, humourous and genuinely interested in the needs of their guests.
The hotel is ideally situated inside the walls of the old city and opposite Wat Chedi Luang. Despite its central location, it is quiet, especially the rooms located along Phrapokkload Rd, Soi 8. Choosing can present a dilemma. The rooms in the front building facing the main road can be a little noisy in the morning, but then, imagine a room looking down on a golden Chedi below, with the sound of morning bells and gongs (7 am) and Wat Doi Suthep shining on the mountain in the distance? Double happiness.
The upstairs rooms in the back section along Soi 8 ( soi means lane), have windows fronting a quiet residential area with French windows opening onto the greenery below. Very Graham Green-esque! Squeeze a fresh lime into that Vodka or Gin, open the shutters and let the warm air work its afternoon magic. Another Wat bell rings: to sleep or to read, that is the question.
The decor is clean and uncluttered, with beautiful Lanna (Northern Thai) decor. The beds are large and comfortable, the breakfast is sensible without being overwhelming, and the price suits my budget.
Downstairs the lobby area is airy and inviting, a place to plonk oneself after long days of walking, temple visiting, or feasting.
On Sundays, the famous walking market begins outside the front door of the 3 Sis. This popular market sees the main streets ‘pedestrianised’ after 4pm, as thousands of stall holders set up their stalls for the highlight of the week. There is music, street food, wandering blind singers, tourist nick nacks, herbal medicine, deep-fried crickets and other bugs, sweets and all sorts of wonders, from North Thailand to Laos, for sale. It is popular with the locals as well as tourists. After the long slow stroll, worn out and over stimulated, it is so nice to come back to a gentle lobby and familiar faces.
Today was a very good day, but then, every day is special in my favourite Asian city. We’re in Chiang Mai again, and each time I visit, my heart grows fonder. Like an old lover, Chiang Mai unfolds slowly and deserves many visits. It’s no wonder that so many expats call this town home.
Today we ate at a remarkable Thai vegetarian restaurant, and since we have discovered the word Jeh, along with the little yellow and red flag displaying this symbol, เจ, we then found some more.
Thai Vegetarian and Vegan food is not at all boring and holy. You won’t miss onions, meat or eggs when you taste these treats. Deep fried shitake mushroom sate with peanut sauce, minced tofu larb studded with dried chilli and basil leaf, a refreshing drink of crushed lemongrass on ice, and so much more. I wanted to order everything from the menu at Pun Pun Slow FoodVegetarian Restaurant. Visit and be delighted by this wonderful temple cafe. Cost, around AU$10 for two.
That evening, following a siesta and another temple visit, it was off to Taste From Heaven. Deep-fried mushrooms, coated in a sesame seed batter, made an excellent appetizer to go with a cold beer (Chang, of course). The rain bucketed down outside, and we continued to order. Next a rice noodle dish, a vegetarian version of a Pad See Ew arrived. I love big fresh rice noodles: smoked by the breath of a hot wok, the dish was classic comfort food and went well with the rain. Another dish, a deep-fried tempura morning glory vine, kangkung, with cashew nuts and tofu, was a surprising twist on the meal. All were helped along by a generous portion of red rice. Vegan chocolate brownie? Yes indeed, and a little fork war followed.
My glorious day will be followed by more, I know. But today was the day of the Jeh restaurant discovery. I’m in heaven.
Pun Pun Restaurant, Wat Suan Dok temple, Suthep Road, Chiang Mai. Or see other locations here. http://punpunthailand.org/restaurant/index.html
Taste from Heaven, Ratmakka Road, Chiang Mai. or see http://taste-from-heaven.com/