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Life in Chiang Mai

Life in Chiang Mai

Mark Whitman

You know those ‘laws’ of probability. At any given moment, somewhere in the world, ten Beetles’ tunes are being broadcast and every 30 seconds a bottle of Chanel No.5 is sold.

Meanwhile those poor monkeys are still frantic at their keyboards hoping to come up with the complete works of Shakespeare because someone decided that given infinite time that would happen.

Well, I have another notion. At any one moment half of the indigenous population of Thailand is eating, while the rest are preparing, cooking, serving and clearing up until it is their turn to be fed and watered. Eating is the national sport, followed by sleep, sex, aerobics and work. No wonder so many elderly farangs settle here, comfortable in a reversal of their normal drudgery.

Not for nothing is the informal Thai greeting an enquiry as to whether the person greeted has eaten. We can ‘sawasdee’ all we wish. To his peers the Thai says, ‘Have you had breakfast?’

The question is akin to the English, ‘How do you do?’ No answer is expected or even possible except to echo the phrase. Comment is redundant, even bad form.

Food we know is crucial to us all and for the two thirds of the world lucky enough to eat on a regular basis the staples such as rice, potatoes, bread and pulses are vital. The Thai adapt this and the comment, ‘Gin kao’ refers not to just rice but crudely put ‘go eat’. Despite the corrupting influence of American fast foods and fizzy drinks the rule remains little and often with the accent on freshly prepared dishes.

So far as I can judge, the Thai palate is sophisticated and attuned to the region the food emanates from, subtleties of texture, spicing, heat and the quality and freshness of the ingredients. The happy result is that eating in house or out in a city such as Chiang Mai is as varied as it is pleasurable. At a rough guess I would say there are more good Italian restaurants here than any other foreign cuisine but there are good Japanese, French, Chinese and others, plus that catch all ‘fusion food’ to give the Thai places modest if not strong competition. As a novice I enjoy most Thai food, as spicy as it comes and as a non- meat eater the variety is especially welcome.

As in all things, we farangs eat differently to our hosts. The Thai seems possessed with a casual, yet often urgent, need for food. The may be morning rice soup, som tum in the afternoon, the evening meal or late night noodles at Talad, on north side of town that don’t keep me waiting.

We tend to snack rather than graze and make one meal important in the day, often by pre-arrangement. "O.K., let’s meet on Friday... 8.30 at Arcobalenos’. Odd when you consider it. In three days time I may fancy Thai food not Italian and be hungry at 7.30. We remain attuned to separate course, a starter, main and possibly a pudding.

This remains alien to the Thai and even to restaurants which cater for visitors with menus clearly offering appetizers, main course and desserts. The newly opened and well designed The Maz does just that but still contrives a chaotic regime that suggests Mr. Bean is in charge of service while M. Hulot is head chef.

Such difference obviously does not matter with a Thai meal, best served together and shared. Even so we tend to eat whilst it is hot rather than leave dishes to be picked over as the whisky coke-soda is demolished. The answer is not to let it worry one.

For myself I find the more pressing problem the high price of wine when eating out thanks to excessive government taxes and the ludicrous mark up put on by most eateries that also seem reluctant to sell by the glass. By being so greedy for profit they lose potential sales.

Still, one of the undoubted pleasures of Chiang Mai is eating out and here are a handful of personal recommendations. My expert colleague offers more each week but here is one for every day eating, a couple that are middle price range and two for more special occasions. Even the last two will pleasantly surprise visitors if their eyes are sidetracked from the cocktails and wine list.

For value, cheerful and attractive service and an excellent singer the busy Nee-Nee near the Grand View Hotel on Super Highway takes some equaling. Not the fanciest location but far enough off the road to be bearable and the food and draught beer are as fresh as only a large turn over can ensure. Mainly Thai clientele but the menu is also in English and it is my choice when entertaining large group. Dinner for 12 comes in at far less than for two ‘back home’.

A few months ago before it relocated I would have chosen the Heun Soon Tri, but now that it has become too large so I opt for The Gallery, also on the River. It has attractive Thai music and an adjacent Jazz bar. The food is northern Thai and as classic as the music. Reasonable prices with an ambience and service to back them up.

Slightly more expensive and an altogether different dining experience can be had at Mo’C Mo’L at the upper end of Huay Kaew Road past CMU. I avoid the noisy air-conditioned bar but either the main section or terrace near the water are fine. The customers are mainly youngish and trendy Thais and the food is Thai, backed up by some European and Japanese alternatives. Service can be a little erratic but is friendly.

In a higher price bracket, few places can compete with Moxies at the D2 hotel for elegance and welcoming service. The wines can be pricey and ‘extras’ such as water, the breads and dips and taxes soon mount up but the food itself is an excellent value. There are wonderful salads from the King’s Royal Project, a wide range of main courses including innovative pastas and fish dishes and tempting desserts. Pleasurable at any time and memorable for such events as Valentines night or the recent promotion of Japanese food, as good as any I have eaten on home ground.

Finally, the courtyard restaurant at the wonderful boutique hotel The Rachamankha, near Wat Phra Singh offers a fine wine list and less steep than in similar places. The magnificent building, the discreet music and impeccable service create a tranquil atmosphere. The food might best be described as fusion, with a Thai base with Burmese influences and western elements. I have never known it fail and for special visitors or a romantic evening this is always my top choice.