Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Northern Thailand

Northern Thailand was a bit of a blessing after Laos. Not that we never had some good food in Laos, it's just most of the time the food was quite bland. After Laos we ate well. Even in some no name places that had their pre-cooked food on display in big metal containers and sold it by the dish with rice at lukewarm temperatures. My favourite way in these hot climes. 
I'm pretty sure the few days we were in Chiang Rai we only ate in one restaurant and that was at Cabbages and Condoms, named so as condoms are cheap as cabbages. It was started by one man, who single handed managed to lower the birth rate in Thailand through his condom company. He also has opened up several restaurants around Thailand. The interior has hundreds of the adverts they used to promote condom use in Thailand. It's a different way to decorate a restaurant. The food was pretty good also. 
The other times we ate, was at the large food night market. A large collection of stalls selling every Thai dish yo could think of. The best thing we had there was a beautifully grilled fish that was smeared in a spicy sauce. It was delish. We also had some cockles grilled that we also had in Vietnam. The market was mainly full of Thai's enjoying some good, cheap food with their families. Everything was being washed down with Thai beer or Thai whisky. There was even musical accompaniment. Some good, some not so good groups played for us, but the atmosphere was excellent. No surprising we never really wanted to eat anywhere else. 
We encountered Chiang Mai on a Sunday, which was lucky for us as the Sunday Night Market was just getting set up as we ventured out from our hotel. For a street market it was a magnificent sight. It had to stretch at least for a mile, plus loads of small streets venturing off in either direction were filled with people selling handicrafts. Of course if you have a market this big, those shoppers will soon become hungry shoppers. The sheer quantity of stalls selling everything from Phad Thai to Grilled Chicken to Curry Noodle Soups was most impressive. For the most part everything we tried was pretty darn good, and we tried a lot.
A local legend in Chiang Mai is Aroon Rai. It's own advertising states it has the best curries in Chiang Mai. Quite a bold statement. If I hadn't been recommended this place, then I would never have found it. Whilst we were inside we saw scores of people just simply walk past, looking in at it's large uninspiring open dining room full of plastic tables and chairs. The place really does not look anything special, but what a treat they were missing. The menu is quite brief although there are a few more items in Thai than in English. Wonder what they are. But basically, it's curry heaven. We ordered a Chiang Mai Curry and a Green Curry, Sticky Rice  and some Spring Rolls as a starter. Just to wet our appetites before the show began. 
The curries were both unxcious and well spiced. The Chiang Mai was thick and nicely sour, the Green Curry was full of spice and coconut. Both delicious and yummy, and with sticky rice to mop up those juices. It was fantastic, and as it was mostly frequented by Thai's and a few Farang it was pretty cheap. We were hoping that after that experience that the rest of Thailand was going to be heaven. But as always when you build something up, it always lets you down.
The following day we visited the Night Market. Compared with the Sunday Market, this was a big let down. It was like being in any touristy street in Bangkok, and this is one of Chiang Mai's major attractions. We found Food Street, as they call it. A large collection of restaurants mostly selling seafood. This looked like it promised us some glorious food. All it gave us was disappointment. We found a busy restaurant full of locals. Which is always a good sign. So after looking through the picture menu, we chose a plate of clams in a chilli sauce and the Special of the Day which was a grilled fish (Can not remember which type of fish it was). The clams were nice, but the chilli sauce was thick and gloopy and lacked any flavour at all, especially chilli. The fish was cooked really well but also lacked flavour. It was kinda bland. Which could have either been the fish or the way it was cooked. Seasoning, we found was something chefs forgot about in Thailand. Maybe this is the way they think we like their food, that we can not handle the spices or heat of the chilli's. Or maybe with the vast quantity of people visiting Chiang Mai they days, anyone who says they can cook is hired, in the mad rush to get the tourist dollar. Chiang Mai is or has become a victim of its own success. For the most part we enjoyed it but felt let down. Some of the best places we ate at, were really nothing special to look at, very simply decorated, and mostly plastic chairs and tables. There is good food in Chiang Mai, it just takes a little of exploring and with Aroon Rai, never judge a book by it's cover.

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