Monday, October 17, 2011

Festival of Lights and Lanterns in Chiang Mai Thailand

Loy Krathong, or the Lantern Festival, is one of the most celebrated and glamorous cultural events in Thailand and one that has long attracted the greatest number of travelers: to say that it is not to be missed would be an understatement. The event takes place in November and the date varies from year to year according to the traditional lunar calendar used in feudal Siam. In 2010, the date was 21 November; this year the event will fall on 10 November, though if you are looking forward to a holiday during this time you will want to be there a few days before as well: 8 November 2011 would be an ideal starting date. Should you be planning a Thailand visit next year, the date will fall on 28 November 2012. Loy Krathong is a period that is so incredibly busy, in fact, that if you want to include it on your holiday agenda it may be prudent to book as early as six months or even one whole year ahead. Accommodation will be at a premium, as are flight tickets, as these events draw tourists from all over the world, including visitors from Thailand's neighbors. Along with the end of December and early February, this is a time where large cities in Thailand are absolutely jam-packed.

The main event, to which the phrase "loy krathong" refers to, occurs on a night with a full moon. A krathong is a miniature raft constructed of a sectioned trunk cut from a banana tree as a base (although today's commercial krathongs are also made from bread flour and Styrofoam; the former is considered more environment friendly and has become more popular in recent years). Banana or pandanus leaves, folded in elaborate patterns, are then added to the base. The final touches include flowers woven into garlands, and this is usually the part where the craftsman or craftswoman can best show her skill. Flowers commonly used are orchids, chrysanthemums, jasmines, and daisies. Candles and incense are then added. The tradition of releasing these rafts involves the belief that doing so allows one to wash away regrets and mistakes, which are then carried down the river and out to the sea, so that one can start the new year with a clean slate. As such, it is an act of purification and spiritual cleansing. Cutting your hair or clipping your fingernails, and then adding them to your krathong, may also be done to symbolize this, although the practice is no longer popular in modern times.

Larger krathongs are used during the grand procession: these are life-sized krathongs built to accommodate young men and women as part of beauty pageants and talent shows. Such krathongs are much more elaborate than the ones commonly floated downriver and are often not floated at all, although some are. They are made of many types of material, with emphasis on design and catching viewers' attention. It is competitive in nature and makes for a memorable spectacle as such processions go through the streets of a major Thai city.

The Loy Krathong festival also coincides with what is known as "Yi Peng," a uniquely northern Thai tradition of releasing sky lanterns. Propelled by hot air, these balloons are generally made of very thin fabric or paper. The purpose of releasing them is not dissimilar to the tradition behind floating krathong: to wash away bad luck and mistakes, and bring good fortune in the coming year. During this time, visitors to northern Thailand provinces can expect to see a sky full of lanterns and fireworks, an exceptional sight rarely seen anywhere else. Tourists can also participate in this tradition, as there are no religious restrictions around it.

Visiting Chiang Mai, Thailand? Find more information about the city in our tours and sightseeing guide and our Chiang Mai accommodation choices.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Finding Great Pizzas and PAstas in Chiang Mai

Are you visiting the cultural capital of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, and struck with a sudden craving for some Italian? That's going to be a little tough since Thailand isn't exactly the capital of pastas and pizzas-but again, Chiang Mai is a city large enough to accommodate all tastes, and if you know where to look and are willing to browse and explore, you will always find just what you want. No need to settle for the cardboard and grease dishes at Pizza Hut, either!

Arco Baleno

With a menu replete in just about any item you could ask for of an Italian restaurant, this is easily one of the better choices you will find in town. For appetizer try the rocket salad if you're watching your weight, but otherwise there is the excellent crab au gratin, spinach crepes, and fried frog legs. Of course the main item is the sheer variety of pasta: from spicy daviolo, familiar items like carbonara, to four-cheese pasta plus ravioli, lasagna, cannelloni and nearly anything pasta-related you could name, this is the place to be for a pasta lover. Not to be outdone is their selection of pizzas using high quality ingredients for toppings and crispy, thin crusts underneath: recommended items are the parma ham special or the anchovy pizza. Each is slathered generously with mozzarella, salami, peppers, mushrooms and more (depending on the item you have ordered). When you are done with all that, try their homemade seasonal ice cream, panna cotta, and tiramisu. The restaurant is open daily and is run by an Italian family, though as far as this writer knows they have no mafia connections.

La Brasserie

This grillhouse provides succulent steaks, lobsters, and some of the tastiest chicken vol au vents you will find anywhere-but in addition to that they also have excellent pastas made to order. Unfortunately, they don't offer pizzas, though their garlic bread is definitely something to write home about. More than that, though, the La Brasserie gives you a certain feeling of class when you are in the restaurant decorated with stained glass and old-school European style, while trained maître d' pour you wine immaculately or make you fresh crepe suzette on the spot. Better yet, the price belies the elegance and opulence and doesn't cost much more than eating anywhere else. Availability can be variable, so phone them before you walk in. It's located in the business district on Chang Klan Road, about ten minutes away from the Night Market on foot. Perfect to go with your accommodation.

The Duke's

With the tagline "founded by a man who loves to eat... and eat, and eat" you can be sure that the portions at The Duke's do not come in "small" though some dishes on the menu will purport to. Order a medium pizza, though, and you're going to quickly find that it is not so middle sized and leans sharply toward huge, and we are talking about the size of the table you will be sitting at. Come as a huge party, order one Large pizza and you are all going to go home bloated as a bean bag. The quality of pizza is definitely more American than Italian-and if you want the genuine, honest to goodness article Arco Barleno would be a better choice-but if you don't mind thicker crust and a more liberal approach to authenticity, you will not be disappointed. They also offer calzones (stuffed pizzas) with customized stuffing tailor made to your tastes, sort of like Subway sandwiches but with a lot more, well, more. Noteworthy is that their pizzas are made in a wood-fired oven. The pasta dishes on offer are fairly average but you will probably be too busy with other sections of the menu anyway. Finish your meal off with some of their apple pies or cheesecake (both of which are, again, served in truly gigantic slices).

San Marco

Similar to Arco Barleno in terms of authenticity, but with a more Mediterranean slant and a slightly more stylish décor, furnishings, and a more convenient location. Prices are generally higher but the quality is not wanting, something attested by the fact that San Marco is almost always full in the evenings and you would be best off if you make a reservation ahead of time. Mainly open in the evenings daily.

Friday, July 1, 2011

What to Eat in Chiang Mai: Regional Dishes You Shouldn't Miss

Did you know that each part of Thailand has its own distinct cuisine? While most dishes you may be readily familiar with-such as pad thai-are eaten throughout the country, central Thailand, the South, the Northeast and the North all have their unique repertoires. So you have reached the north. You're sitting in a Thai restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but not quite sure where to start. Is this dish too spicy? Does it contain anything you're allergic to: nuts, dairy products, egg, soya, or seafood? Print out this little guide to begin your culinary adventure in the north. Typical ingredients used in these dishes will be listed in detail, as well, to guard against specific food allergies and keep your holiday from being spoiled.
Aeb muu
This dish can serve as both appetizer (albeit a heavy one) and part of the main course, usually eaten with sticky rice. The aeb muu is a paste comprised of pork and chili paste mixed together before being wrapped in banana leaves, and it is then cooked by roasting over a low fire or steaming. It tastes predominantly of chili and herbs, and tends toward spicy. Ingredients include the following: minced pork, diced kaffir lime leaves, coriander, spring onion, and chicken egg. The curry paste that serves as the main condiment consists of dried bird chili, salt, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, and shallots. As you can see from the list, this makes for a very tasty dish rich with the scents, textures and unique flavors of no fewer than nine distinct kinds of spices and herbs. If you aren't partial to sticky rice, this is also good to eat with plain steamed jasmine rice.
Khao soy
This is a noodle dish marked by its distinct colors: bright yellow egg noodle and rich red-orange curry. It is definitely a main dish and can be very filling, with varying degrees of hotness, and eaten along with a number of side condiments sprinkled onto the noodle to add to the already strong flavors: pickled mustard greens, lime, spring onion, coriander and shallots. The curry itself is a thick soup that's made from curry paste (usually of similar or identical make to curry paste used in aeb muu) and a good helping of vegetable oil and coconut milk. As this originated as a Muslim dish-though it has since been absorbed into northern Thai cuisine thanks to a history of cultural integration and exchange of ideas-most khao soy is made with chicken or beef rather than pork, though the pork variation is also widely available.
Larb pla
The "larb" refers to a particular way of mixing boiled minced meat with chili paste, various spices and herbs. The larb pla is a fish variant, made from boiled fish grounded to a fine paste, shrimp paste, roasted rice grains, turmeric, lemongrass, coriander, spring onion, Vietnamese mint, garlic and vegetable oil. It's best eaten with crisp, fresh vegetables.
Kaep muu
Essentially pork shavings: this is a northern Thai snack with distinct flavoring, made from pork skin marinated in dark soy sauce then deep-fried until it is crispy and brown. No spices or herbs are involved, though it's a little heavy on the fat side: travelers cautious of the effect of hot food on their palates can sample this one without worry.
Yam sanat
A Lanna-Thai salad comprised of coarsely chopped vegetables stirred in curry paste: this is a perfect dish for those watching for calories or even vegetarians (as long as you request the restaurant to leave the minced pork out). The ingredients are long beans, water morning glory, eggplant, shallots, coriander, spring onion, garlic, and a type of acacia leaves.
Nam prik ong
Minced pork, chili paste, and cherry tomatoes are the main ingredients that make up this dish: the name suggests that it's one of the spicier dishes but is in fact the least hot of all "nam prik" dishes. Eaten with fresh eggplants, lettuces, pumpkin, long beans and cucumber.

Monday, June 20, 2011

chiang mai, thailand, shopping malls, digital malls, ipads, iphones, ipods, android, smartphones

Like any good modern city, Chiang Mai is a place where you can satiate your gadget lust and need for technology easily and quickly, and you will find fewer places where you can buy an entire desktop PC, custom-built, for less: cheap computers, cheap unlocked cellphones, peripherals and accessories like Bluetooth headsets, speakers, keyboards, HDMI or USB cables, and mice are readily available nearly everywhere-in fact 7-11's have started selling headsets and mini-speakers to go with your netbooks, smartphones, or iPods. If you are just here to visit, it's also extra helpful to buy expensive gadgets in Thailand and claim tax refunds when you depart which can net you back quite a bit of cash. In particular, you can find them gathered into IT sections or digital malls at the following locations:

Panthip Plaza

Located on Chang Klan Road in the Night Bazaar (also known as the Night Market), the Panthip Plaza is a miniature version of the renowned digital shopping mall in Bangkok of the same name. Though considerably smaller in scale than its older counterpart, it also has the advantage of being much less cramped, less noisy, and having a little more class: the building includes a dental clinic, a Shabushi restaurant, and the Fuji Japanese restaurant as well as a food court on the top floor, plus a SE-ED bookstore and several coffee outlets. You can find software, games (PC, XBOX 360 and PS3 alike; if you are a little retro, you can also buy very cheap PS2s), digital cameras, and hardware components ranging from RAM sticks, external USB drives, graphic cards, power supply units to LCD monitors large and small. There are also several shops in the building that will let you choose these component parts and assemble them for you at no extra charge: the alternative, if you will, to Newegg if you are living in Thailand. This way, you can get yourself a very powerful gaming desktop for nearly half the price you would have paid in the States, United Kingdom or Australia. At the time of writing, there is almost nothing on offer for those looking for a new shiny smartphone. However, there will be an HTC shop opening soon at the Panthip Plaza if you're looking for some Windows Phone 7 or Android goodness in your life.

Siam TV

A glitzy electronics shop that sells everything from washing machines and ovens to the latest and greatest HDTVs and 3D televisions from Samsung, Sony, and LG. Naturally their catalogue includes laptops and netbooks from leading brands including but not limited to Toshiba, Acer, Asus, Dell and HP as well as smartphones, feature phones, and all the peripherals they entail. They also stock Android tablets and iPads. The second floor is home to a True Vision office (if you need to get your cable subscription dealt with) and a small café offering cold and blended beverages.

Computer Plaza

Situated in the Old City area by the canal on Manee Nopparat road, this digital mall is very similar to the Panthip Plaza but has the disadvantage of being rather older and a little grubby around the edges. It offers a range of goods very much like Panthip Plaza's, however, but is much farther from the Night Bazaar and somewhat more inconvenient to reach if your accommodation isn't in its immediate vicinity.

Computer Square

Adjacent to the Computer Plaza; offers similar custom computers shops, software, and hardware components.

Central Airport Plaza

The third floor of the Central Airport Plaza is devoted almost entirely to technology: whatever section you are in you will be seeing many, many brands of computers and indeed the most famous names have their own shops here, including Dell, Lenovo, HP, Sony, and Acer for computer makers. For smartphones OEMs, you can expect to find a nice, classy shop displaying HTC's latest and greatest (Desire HD, Incredible S, HD7, and Mozart) showing off their vibrant AMOLED or Super AMOLED displays and the latest version of Android. If you are after a TV or two, there are Sony and LG shops dedicated just to those too, with the latter also offering smartphones such as the surprisingly affordable dual-core LG 2X running on the Nvidia Tegra 2 system on a chip. Nokia is also represented in a fairly large store and you can find a Nokia service center just opposite the shopping mall itself. Off to the side, next to the IT City shop, you will find many smaller cellphone counters that buy and sell secondhand devices (today not limited to just phones but also iPads, the Blackberry Playbook and the Samsung Galaxy Tab as well as an Acer Iconia Tab or two), which is quite ideal if you are the type of gadget lover who needs to switch handsets or tablets every few months-sell yours, collect the money and off to get a shiny new one.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chinese Restaurants in Chiang Mai

Chinese-Thai integration has always been fantastic throughout the history of Thailand, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the proliferation of Chinese restaurants in Chiang Mai! Find out where to eat great, authentic Dim Sum, Peking ducks and more here.

Panda Palace
A charmingly appointed Chinese restaurant, the Panda Palace lets you take a peek into the traditional teahouses of ancient China, with plush seats and décor tailored around red silk, mother-of-pearl camphor wood panels and-last but not least-excellent Dim Sum (Cantonese cuisine, usually steamed or fried items, served on small plates or in wooden baskets) from shrimp dumplings, meat balls, spare ribs, goose feet, turnip cakes and fried taro dumplings. Don't miss their steamed custard buns or vegetable spring rolls! With a wide-ranging and comprehensive menu, they are not limited to Dim Sum items but also offer excellent barbecued honeyed pork, Peking duck, stir-fried Chinese noodle, fried rice, crispy lemon chicken, sweet-and-sour spare ribs, shark fin soup and more that will make you feel just like you are dining at the table of an emperor from the distant past. You can pick your desired portion size (small, medium, large) for most menu items. High-quality chrysanthemum tea, both hot and cold, is served with every meal. This restaurant is open from 11.30 AM to 2 PM, and then again from 6 PM to 9 PM for dinner. Price range is medium to high depending on the food you are ordering (i.e. Dim Sum is considerably cheaper than shark fin or Peking duck); on average expect to spend $10-20 per person while dining here, and a little less if you opt for their luncheon buffet, which mostly consists of Dim Sum and fried dishes. It can be found in the city center on Chang Klan Road.

Him Pochana
Distinguished by its garden setting and moderate, diner-friendly meal rates, this open-air building is surrounded by a stream and offers both Thai and Chinese cuisines in its repertoire. The tables are set with Chinese-style round carousels and the menu is nothing short of huge; the décor is simplistic but endearing, complete with a Chinese ancestral shrine in one corner. Him Pochana is located in Doi Saket on the Chiang Mai-Lamphun road, and is best known for its fish and pork dishes, the former of which is remarkably fresh and well-seasoned.

Jia Tong Heng
A two-floor building restaurant located near Anusarn Market (part of the Night Bazaar area), this restaurant is best known for its ginger fish dish. Private rooms are available but don't expect too much from its ambience, as in true old-school Chinese style you will be sitting through a lot of loud chatter and kitchen noises. The premise itself is somewhat long overdue for a renovation, with both floor and walls well-worn by time and feet. If you go there for the food, however, you should meet with no disappointment (albeit the desserts are not particularly recommendable).

Shanghai Restaurant
Rather unusual in that it offers Shanghai cuisine, whereas most Chinese restaurants in Chiang Mai go for Cantonese (hence the proliferation of Dim Sum of all sorts). Run by a Chinese businessman, this eatery is situated inside the China Town area, which is where the famous Warorot Market lies.

Yod Aroy
A simple, down-to-earth eatery that combines Thai and Chinese cuisine in the business district; the prices can't be beat, but you will be getting what you pay for (though that is not necessarily bad) and the food is definitely authentic.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hill Tribes of the North - Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Northern Thailand administrative region is known for its population of native hill tribes which, much like the Native Americans of the United States, are an ethnic minority living in a strongly multicultural society. They are divided into various tribes and clans, each with its own set of customs and distinct subcultures. The most notable groups are called the Akha, Lisu, Hmong, Mien, Lahu, Paduang, and the Karen. They generally live in remote uphill and mountain lands, where they keep traditional villages and make their living from agriculture: without exception, their areas are rural and for the most part modern conveniences, education and economic opportunities are scant. Unlike the Native Americans, the hill tribes are not generally indigenous to the region but instead immigrated from bordering countries, such as Myanmar, Tibet, Yunnan, and China. The only exception to this is the Paduang, who are native to Thailand. Other tribes have been in the country only for about 100 years. In total, the hill tribes number at 700,000 to 1,000,000, making them anywhere from 1% to 1.47% of the entire population of Thailand (the uncertain numbers are due to difficulties in taking consensus among the hill tribes, many of whom are not registered citizens and who have no social security records or housing records with the government).

In the year 1959, the government formed the National Committee for the Hill-Tribes to assist in the integration of the tribes into Thai culture and society, while emphasizing that their cultures and animistic practices must be retained and preserved; that integration must happen without assimilation. Part of this is caused by their increasing population and the extreme poverty they suffer, as well as their agricultural practices which involve shifting cultivation and their slash-and-burn techniques, both of which threaten the forests and water reserves as well as contributing to drug trafficking, the last of which is illegal in Thailand. Toward curbing this and developing a sustainable economy in which hill tribes can live off the land without damaging it, the Royal Project-an organization founded by the current king to assist farmers and citizens living in rural areas-has sponsored a program to educate hill tribes on more environmentally aware farming practices, as well as providing them with the tools and technology to do so: among others, the Project has developed village roads, irrigation systems, and have made progress in bringing electricity to the mountain villages. This has led to a decrease in the growing of poppies and also assisted the tribes in becoming more prosperous and self-sufficient through the growth of winter crops, coffee beans (see Doi Kham coffee) and many other flora that cannot be sustained on the lowlands and most of Thailand due to the tropical climate. While they continue to suffer from marginalization and exclusion to some extent, the Royal Project has had considerable success in the matter of uplifting and helping them. The government has also initiated a program to establish and staff primary schools in these areas to ensure that hill tribe children are equipped with rudimentary education so that, when or if they do leave their villages for the cities, they will be better able to resist exploitation by unethical employers, and capable of finding jobs that conform to legal standards, including minimum wage and health insurance.

In addition to everything else, many hill tribe villages are now a tourist attraction: while it can be argued that this contributes to harmful exotification and that merchandising them is in many ways dehumanizing, there is an upside to the tourism in that it brings some income to the hill tribes themselves, and this is more than anything a welcome addition. So while you should certainly consider trips to visit these villages, it would also be helpful to make sure that you can respect their cultures while you are there and that you can treat them as human beings instead of zoo exhibits. Trips to the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, are particularly good as they tend to include multiple hill tribe visits.