Sunday, July 10, 2011

Chiang Mai cultural and food tour Part 1

Elliebum Café, downstairs from our room. Great atmosphere and free breakfast make for a wonderful morning!

Yesterday Gerry and I went on a wonderful tour of the neighborhood around our guesthouse, Elliebum, hosted by the owner, Gade. The neighborhood is inside the "old city," which is surrounded by walls and a moat. This seems appropriate, since Chiang mai is over 700 years old, and until a little over 100 years ago the city was its own kingdom separate from Bangkok and the rest of Thailand. Before we set out into the city, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast prepared by Gade. Gerry had french toast with maple syrup and fresh fruit, and I had a big bowl of fresh fruit with yogurt and muesli.
Gerry's french toast

My big bowl of fruit included dragon fruit, guava, papaya, and mango - yum! The dragon fruit is very mild and delicate, while the guava was crunchy like an asian pear.

After enjoying our light breakfast with tea and Thai iced coffee, we were ready to walk. We began our tour at a nearby temple (one of many) where Gade explained the many different cultures and religions that have influenced northern Thailand and Chiang mai. One of the strongest influences on Buddhism in the region comes from India.

A good example of this influence is the sacred Bodhi trees like this one which can be seen at many temples in Chiang mai.

According to our host, 85% of Thai people are Buddhist and practice a style called "small vehicle" Buddhism.

Alongside the sacred bodhi tree sits a "spirit house" used to give offerings and pay respect to ancestors. The "wings" at the peak of the house are typical to architecture in this northeastern region of Thailand, a remnant of occupation by the Burmese long ago.

We saw many fruit trees along our walk, but this one interested me because it looked so much like the infamously stinky durian. This is Jackfruit, and apparently tastes nothing like durian. Inside are sweet pods that are so sticky you need to put oil on your hands before touching them.

Gade took us down some back alleys to see some of the many local food vendors and street markets.

this is common "street food" in Chiang mai. Veggies, bananas, pork, chicken, etc. is wrapped in a banana leaf and then steamed and grilled. According to Gade, the trick for foreigners is knowing if you are buying a sweet or savory snack.

This woman enthusiastically agreed to a photo with one stipulation -make her look nice :)

She explained the negative impact a recent free-trade agreement with China has had on local food production in the region. For example, this area of Thailand used to be famous for small, deliciously sweet oranges. The import of exotic fruits from China has introduced diseases that have wiped out half the orange crop for the last two years, devastating local farmers and quadrupling the price of oranges.
Another problem is that local farmers can't compete with Chinese prices: the larger cloves of garlic seen here (bottom right) are from China. The smaller, more pungent (and therefore healthier!) Thai garlic (top right) is more expensive and is struggling to compete with its larger, blander cousin.

one of many street markets

fresh quail eggs

freshwater softshell crabs from local rice paddies - Gade explained that these are generally used to flavor broth and curry rather than eaten whole

This fish "paste" is found in many local dishes, and is used to add salt and flavor similarly to the way anchovy paste is used.

bamboo shoots

Two types of preserved eggs. The pink type is pickled in a brine, while the white type is the infamous "century egg," preserved by coating with clay, lime, salt, and rice hulls and buried in the earth for years. Gade explained that the yolk and "white" inside these eggs is actually black in color.

There is much more to tell about our tour, so I hope you check back for the next installment....

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