February 19 & 20
All we wanted was Pad Thai. Good, real authentic Pad Thai. That was the first thing we asked the receptionist at the hostel. "Where is the best Pad Thai in Chiang Mai?" We had spent a good portion of our trip hearing the phrase "Thailand has the best food" and we were very eager to start our culinary journey, even if it was only for four days.
We dropped our bags and enjoyed the AC for a few minutes before heading off to find some Pad Thai and book our elephant excursion. The receptionist directed us to a group of street carts that served all kinds of spicy, Thai goodies. Sadly, we couldn't find Pad Thai, so Miki got a noodle soup dish and I settled with a Thai Basil Chicken dish was just OK. It's suprising how large Chiang Mai is. We didn't realize until we actually walked around, but it was a full blown city. For some reason, I imagined a quaint, artsy village with elephant treks, cooking classes and massages. After a bit of ATM drama that resulted in me spending nearly an hour on the phone trying to convince Chase Bank that I was, indeed, Alyssa Adler (Rookie Mistake #2 Part B), we booked our elephant tours, wandered around in search of ice cream (no such luck) and headed back to the hostel.
Our first full day in Thailand began with a ride in a tuk-tuk into the mountains. It was hardly as rustic as I imagined it would be, as we climbed higher and higher. We made conversation with a food-obsessed couple from Brooklyn who recommended a Thai restaurant called Pok Pok. Have any of you ever been? According to the girl, the chef does not respond to desperate tweets asking for restaurant recommendations in Thailand, in case you were wondering. Arriving at Doi Suthep was like visiting the Thai version of the Western Wall. Packed with tourists, surrounded by stalls that sold over-priced Western food and souvenirs, we maneuvered the best we could, climbing the many steps to the top and dodging worn-out tourists.
The legend of Doi Suthep involves a white elephant, of course, and a monk named Sumanathera who obtained a Buddha relic that had magical powers. When he went to the king, however, the relic didn't seem to have any abnormal characteristics, so the king rejected it. The monk then traveled to northern Thailand, where the relic broke in two. The smaller half was kept in a temple called Suandok, and the larger piece was strapped to the back of a white elephant and released into the jungle. The elephant climbed up to Doi Suthep, stopped, trumpeted three times and then died. This was seen as an omen, and thus, the temple of Doi Suthep was built.
True to the story, there were relics of elephants all over the temple grounds. To Buddhists, this is one of the holiest sites in all of Thailand. Many people were there to worship, walking around the pagoda three times carrying flowers which would later be placed on one of the many altars in the temple. Miki and I wandered, taking in the lovely colors and watching the Buddhist rituals with curiosity. Known for beautiful views of Chiang Mai, we were disappointed to find a thick fog covering the city, so we headed back to the tuk-tuk to visit another temple a little ways down the mountain, Wat Pha Lat. This Wat was much less crowded. In fact there was almost no one else there. It was peaceful and beautiful, surrounded completely by jungle and constructed in a more modest fashion. There, we met another novice monk who was originally from Laos, but had spent the last seven years at a temple in Thailand. He explained to us that an important Dahli (Buddhist rabbi) was in town to host a "meeting." Many monks had traveled from around the region to see him. In fact, there were two monks on our flight from Luang Prebang likely traveling to Chiang Mai for that reason. He wanted a picture with us, so we obliged and then asked for a picture with him. We wrote our names down for him so he could find us on Facebook. Like many monks, he wanted to practice his English. Miki already has a Facebook buddy whom she met at Big Brother Mouse, so she's s practically an expert at practicing English with monks. If you're ever in Laos or Thailand and visit a Buddhist temple, don't be shy about talking to the monks! They love meeting foreigners and practicing their English. Don't worry, I thought they were silent monks when I first got here,too
After exploring the beautiful grounds of Wat Pha Lat we realized we were stuck. Since this was not as hot of a tourist destination, there were no tuk-tuks around. We contemplated walking down the mountain, or at least trying to flag one like true New Yorkers, when we spotted a tuk-tuk. The driver told us he was chartering a family for the day, but if it was OK with them, he would drive us back to the city. The family, who were French, obliged and we all climbed into the back of the truck. What was supposed to take maybe a half-hour, ended up taking an hour and a half as we drove all around Chiang Mai. Miki and I were fairly certain the driver didn't know where he was going and the French family knew just as little. Fortunately, they were very nice and had three kids who whined just like American kids. Of course, it was the middle one who complained the most. He didn't speak English, but after having experience with two younger brothers (who were so whiny, sometimes my parents called them Weinstein and Weinstein, Attorneys at Law), I felt like I understood him perfectly.
We were starving by the time we finally got dropped off in the old city (yes, there are old cities outside of Jerusalem). Stumbling into a vegetarian restaurant we feasted for $3 and enjoyed the fans whirring overhead. Like I said, Chiang Mai is hot and muggy, so any chance you get to cool down, you take it. We spent the afternoon roaming the streets of the old city and heading over to the Saturday night market. If there's one thing Chiang Mai is known for besides elephants and cooking classes, it's the night market. It's a Thai version of the Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv - it sells crap you never thought you needed, but very well may want. We did a complete lap, deciding what food we would come back to when we were hungry and eyeballing the elephant pants. Finally, we decided we couldn't wait any longer and, even though we weren't totally hungry, we reentered the market to get food. This time, the market was packed. Like full on can't-move-Times-Square-times-a-zillion-packed. I used my New York shouldering and elbowing skills and got us to the right food carts. We opted for a portion of Tofu Pad Thai to share, an egg roll, some french fries for Miki and some fried squid and chicken for me. Plus, the obligated smoothie, of course. Exhausted and desperate for some cool air, we hauled our goodies all the way back to the hostel where we sat in the lobby and ate while the random hostel boys chatted with us and watched The Interview on the big screen TV.
Pretty much wiped from our day in the heat and clocking in almost ten miles worth of steps, I headed upstairs to write some blog posts and get showered. Instead, I ended up talking to another girl in our room - a German, of course - who had great taste in books and wanted to hear about our time in Laos. Before I knew it, Miki was back upstairs, it was almost midnight and time for bed. Because tomorrow was going to be a big day. Literally.