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Tuesday January 16, 2007 // By Sandy

Days 3-4: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, yet significantly less smoggy than Bangkok. Because of this we were able to take our first tuk-tuk (open-air taxi) ride without feeling like we’d suffocate. Tuk-tuk drivers are notoriously shifty and apparently will attempt to scam you good if you’re not looking, but we got from point A to point B with no trouble. The irony of that little trip was anywhere you go in the city, you find tuk-tuk drivers propositioning you for a ride (“See temple. 50 baht!”), but when we actually needed one, we had to wait five minutes for one to pass by.

Chiang Mai is where we started the guided part of our trip. We met An at the airport, and for the last two days he’s been our leader, translator and cultural guide for everything we’ve seen in northern Thailand. While it’s possible we could have seen the same things on our own, and possibly even read up enough to understand their significance, we couldn’t have gotten the local touch without An.

A quick rundown of the last couple days:

A day shopping in Chiang Mai, walking the city, and seeing the big temple, Wat Phra Sing. While walking through a relatively empty town at mid-day, we wondered where all the people were. By 4 pm, when we were lying by the pool, nearly passed out from exhaustion, we had our answer. Tropical sun is hot.

An insanely exhaustive two-hour Thai massage. It’s more than a massage, it’s also a quasi-yoga session and bone-rejuvenation routine. We were rubbed, turned, twisted, walked on, pulled, pushed and cracked. I fear now that my body has felt what’s possible, it will force me to go back for more.

Hilarious dinner theatre. Main lesson here: The missionaries of the Church of Crappy American Dinner Theatre have done their job admirably.

The hilltop temple of Doi Suthep. An shined admirably here, explaining dozens of Thai traditions we’d never have understood otherwise. We were honored to be blessed by one of the resident monks, who splashed us with water and tied a piece of string around our wrists for good luck. As flooded with visitors (hard to tell where the tourists stopped and the religious began) as the temple was, I still felt like we were being let in on something holy.

Local lunch of Kaow Soi. An told us we were headed for a Thai buffet; we said thanks, but no. We wanted something local. So he took us to the local favorite, where we had an amazing red curry-like dish called Kaow Soi. If An was doing his best to protect our delicate American taste buds, I think we finally broke him.

Silk factory and showroom. Quickest tour ever, followed by wallet-thinning visit to the racks. Got some scarves, got some art, got some raw fabric with which one of us plans to sew a bag.

Umbrella factory. Where we learned that umbrella paper is made from elephant dung.

Cooking school. Led by an excitable woman named Perrie. She took us to the local market where we followed her around and bought the necessary ingredients for our dishes: prawns, coconut milk, papaya, garlic, etc. I love the rhythm of a grocery, and it was a great treat to shop at one with a local as our guide. Afterwards we went back to the school, an open-walled house in the countryside, and learned how to make six dishes: pad thai, hot and sour prawn soup, basil with chicken, papaya salad, kaow soi, and banana in coconut cream. We got our own cookbook to take home with us. If you’re in the mood for homemade Thai food in the few weeks after we get back, and you’re in the neighborhood, come on over. I’m sure we’ll be wanting to practice everything we’ve learned.

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