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Hot Chiang Mai

The pretentious say they visit Chiang Mai for the “culture.” Not that Bangkok the capital has a shortage of palaces, temples and rituals, but these have been so ingrained in the typical tourism agenda that they elicit only yawns.

But Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, said our guide, was really where Thai history and culture are celebrated. At our group’s recent visit to this province in the north, a string of temples on the tour’s first day prompted our “mother hen,” PMFTC Inc.’s Didet Danguilan, to tell our guides: “No more temples! We want to eat now!”

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We may have been committing Buddhist sacrilege, but really, at least to my philistine eyes, once you’ve seen a temple, you’ve seen them all.

I was one of the judges at the recently concluded Bright Leaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, and the trip to the land with a surfeit of temples was a little perk attached to the duty, alongside board chair Krip Yuson and writer Albert Garcia. Joining us, of course (or rather, we joined them) were the winners — print and broadcast journalists and now even online reporters from as far north as Baguio, Central Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. Wherever we were from, one thing was obvious at the outset — we all hailed from the land of shoppers!

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Our hotel (Novotel) is smack dab in the center of Chiang Mai city, and even on our first evening after a whole day of traveling, many in the group were already exploring the sidewalks and stalls with all sorts of commodities, as they would do every night of our stay. On our free day, most of us trooped to the funny-sounding (to Pinoy ears) Warorot wholesale market. Though the most fun part, for me, was the ride on the ubiquitous songthaew, which is like our jeepney and the cheapest mode of transport there is.

Food played a crucial supporting role in our visit, with the best meals being at a nondescript outlet in the market, presided over by a former hotel chef (we speculated) who proudly displayed a portrait wherein he wears the finest chef’s toque and coat with a medal. And from the sea bass to the vegetables and to the pad Thai, we felt that we indeed were in the hands of a royal chef, which is why all of us found our way to his stall for our next meals.

Other interesting food temples we tried: a tiny “Asian fusion” restaurant run by a friendly Australian, and Sao-Pao-Kum restaurant, a recommendation of Krip’s friend that lies in the center of rice fields but served Thai cuisine with dash. For instance, their pad Thai came accompanied by a tray that held little glasses of chili, sugar, salt and lime so we could season our servings as we wished.

A welcome respite was lunch at the Chinese buffet at the Shangri-La, a multicourse dim sum selection that had us clamoring for rice since it was served last. For dessert, we had gelatinous balls in lotus syrup, a most refreshing midday perk!

Then there were the elephants. We were late to the elephant park and so managed to catch only the middle portion of the elephant show, with elephants and their handlers showing off their archery skills and even played a game of football!

The most mesmerizing part was the “painting session,” with elephants brandishing brushes with their trunks. The canvases were held up for all to see, and indeed, given the training they must have undergone, the pachyderms certainly deserved our applause!

Be warned, it is swelter season in Thailand, so even in the supposedly cooler climes of Chiang Mai it was warm and dehydrating. To make things worse, smoke from burning forests in Laos and Cambodia had necessitated the use of face masks.

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It was also “hot” because the day after we left, Thailand was holding its first “civilian” elections. Posters of candidates with their numbers on the ballot flashed before us as we drove by. I can’t read Thai so I didn’t know if any one of them promised to solve the problem of the haze that was adding air pollution to the noxious atmosphere. But I hope Thai voters find relief soon!

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TAGS: Asian food, At Large, Chiang Mai, rina jimenez david, Thai food
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