An elderly man pours the batter onto the hot plate and waits, eyes darting between his creation and the ever growing queue in front of his stall as the mixture oozes into a perfect circle. When it starts bubbling, the air is filled with sweet, sickly steam and the man sets to work, deftly scraping under the mixture in two swift movements. He looks like he has been doing this for years, but rather than becoming bored with the job, his pancake making has become the practised art of a true perfectionist. The mixture ready, a banana is sliced evenly and rapidly over the pancake and molten chocolate poured high from a jug fills the gaps. Pancakes are one of very few sweet street foods, and always attract the longest queues, filled with locals and tourists alike. Today is no different. Eating one is one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
A Frenchman places his order and then stands back to video the process. The elderly man looks furtively across at the lens hovering above his tiny, streetside kitchen before shrugging his shoulders and continuing with his work. More snaps for the holiday album, I suppose.
Welcome to Thailand
We pay for our pancakes and continue down the street. The centre of Chiang Mai is set out almost like a grid and is surrounded by a moat, making it fairly easy to navigate which is a relief as street signs for minor roads are sporadic.
“Sawadii kha” shouts a teenage girl grinning as she hangs onto the back of her boyfriend’s moped, “Welcome to Thailand!” We wave in response, mouths full of sickly sweet pancake. More mopeds scream past and we press ourselves against a wall until there is calm again.
Further up the street, a small temple is tucked away to the right. A quite hush envelops us as we enter, inviting tranquility and uninterrupted reflection. Stray dogs litter the pathways around the temple, waiting for donated food to be brought to them. These dogs have become characteristic of many Thai temples. The monks take them in and the public donate money and food to keep them alive. From the temple, you can just glimpse the monks’ living quarters, with clothes and robes hung out to dry on their balconies.
“Welcome to Thailand. Have you seen Wat Chedi Luang?” A man is walking towards us brandishing a large map and a huge grin. He’s referring to one of Chiang Mai’s main temples, another one of the best things to do in Chiang Mai they say.
“Er, no, not yet,” I say, walking backwards as fast as he is walking towards me, sceptically wondering why I’m being approached.
“Why not? You have to see it. Best thing in Chiang Mai. How long you been in Thailand? You do trekking?”
“We’re going tomorrow,” I reply, scepticism starting to fade against his good nature.
“Good. Good. Best thing in Chiang Mai. Now, I show you temple.” He opens the map, enthusiastically circling all the best things in Chiang Mai.
“Oh, one thing. I forget,” he says before leaving us in the peace of the temple once more. “When you go to Wat Chedi Luang, you do Monk Chat. Very nice people. Best thing in Chiang Mai. Enjoy Thailand.” He lightly touches his fingers together, dips his head and walks away.
‘Monk Chat’ is an area inside the walls of the temple where monks are available all day to chat to tourists about Buddhism in Thailand as well as their own lives. As monks in Thailand are incredibly respected, honoured members of society, they are often distant and rarely approachable. ‘Monk Chat’ offers both the monks and the tourists a rare opportunity to talk candidly with one another.
It is late afternoon and Monk Chat is quiet. One is playing on his mobile, another eating a sandwich and two more are playing cards. We approach the one on his mobile, as this seems the most out of character for a stereotypical monk, and sit down to ask him about his life. He came from a poor, rural family. There was no work or future for him there, so he left when he was very young and trained to be a monk. We chat about his past, his future and his day-to-day life, honestly and openly.
On the way out, another monk screams past on a moped, orange robes billowing out behind him. I feel the same disheartenment as I did when I saw a nun in Rome riding a moped whilst eating an ice cream in St. Peters Square. It’s that difficult confrontation with reality when you realise they are, in many ways, the same as you or I.
Best Thing in Chiang Mai
Hours later, we walk the length of Loi Khro Road where Thai girls court for business whilst the pre-op and post-op ladyboys exchange notes. A middle aged American guy is strolling along in front of us, one hand constantly squeezing and releasing the left buttock of the tiny Thai lady he is with. He is talking almost continuously, pausing only to see if she responds, which she does, with a small nod of the head. (On the best things to do in Chiang Mai list? I suppose it depends on your definition of best.)
We’re walking towards the enormous, sprawling night market in search of dinner. One whole section of the market is devoted to street restaurants of varying sizes which serve fantastic seafood. Even in such a large market, the seafood area is easily located by following the smells of barbequed prawns and hot spices, the bubbling of conversation and the clinking Chiang Beer bottles. “You come here!” “Look at menu!” “Best prawns in Chiang Mai. Thiiis big!” Although the width he has spread his hands would indicate he served whale rather than prawn, this third waiter wins us over with his exuberant sales pitch, and we sit down to order as Chiang Mai bustles around us.
“Here’s to trekking, then,” I say, raising my glass and grinning, “Best thing in Chiang Mai, apparantly.”
To learn more about Katie, visit her website, The Tap Tap Bus.
Photo by txd, KTRawlings, Christian Haugen