Here’s the thing. Often spending Malaysian mornings crafting blog posts about the latest Southeast Asian place we visited or complaining about burning garbage smoke wafting in our condo, there was plenty of time to focus on writing. But that’s the thing with Chiang Mai. Between endless eating opportunities, a small but friendly expat community and interesting places to visit for day trips, I’m simply not finding time to focus on the blog as much as I’d like. By the time my brain gets a chance to remember any anecdotal stories good enough for a post, we’ve moved onto something else. And with all the great food, serious workouts at the local gym become inherently necessary to avoid packing on the pounds. Despite the rain that’s come down in buckets for upwards of 24 straight hours almost regularly since our arrival, there’s always something to see or do and after two months, it’s sometimes hard to get past wasting two years of valuable early retirement time in Penang.
Having spent Saturday night enjoying a group eating event featuring flame grilled ribs seasoned four different ways at a place called The Flying Pig, we’re both tired and feel like sitting around our comfy three bedroom house with the “High-So” neighbors (who are totally oblivious and indifferent to farang residents). But in today’s world, that means playing with the phone on social media which ultimately leads to a new notification from one of countless Facebook groups focused on food, cultural events or weekend hiking options. Sadly, although we’ve taken some day trips to the rice fields and surrounding mountains, our nasal passages and throats haven’t yet adapted to a normal active lifestyle in the rainy and humid season so we’ve decided to table the weekend hiking group options until cool season.
So today we’re off on a 30 minute drive to San Sai district for an all you can eat Sunday brunch at a place called 19th Hole Bar and Grill. Devoted to being a guide for restaurants, bars and food shops, the “Eat in Chaing Mai” Facebook group posts lots of promotions and daily posts by foodie types and they quoted today’s this way:
All you can eat, Roast chicken, pork, brussel sprouts, carrots, pea’s, cauliflower and cheese, yorkshire pudding, roast potato’s gravy/apple sauce and fresh buns and soup of the day. …Fill up your plate continually until you are full. No one leaves hungry!! 🙂 240 baht…..
Arriving in what would only be classified as a “dive bar” in the homeland, we walked past an old pool table with a blackboard listing the standings of a Monday night pool tournament and headed inside for the air-conditioned main room. Inside we found two Europeans watching “footie” and drinking alcohol, a second TV showing old 80’s videos of bands like Dire Straits, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan and third showing Thai soap operas. Greeted by a very friendly and weathered looking guy we guessed was the owner, we listened politely he chatted a bit and sent us outside for one of the tastiest buffets we’ve had yet. With gravy as good as it gets and roast chicken that practically passed for roast turkey, I’d describe it as a western/psuedo-British meal in a place that feels like Tulsa meets Thailand only with Brits and Irish people substituting for burly midwestern truckers.
After a second helping we realized we’d need something else to do since it seemed silly to drive half an hour only to turn right around. Fortunately, the lush green rice fields that dominate much of northern Chiang Mai province are close by and don’t require an overnight stay. Taking advantage of a partly cloudy rain free early September afternoon, we referred to another great post by someone on the Facebook group “I♥ChiangMai” that listed dozens of small cafes and coffee shops set in the rice fields. Despite the blazing heat and humidity, rainy season is the best time to view rice fields, waterfalls and botanical gardens if you catch a break in the downpours. Using Google Maps, we negotiated a series of narrow local roads and soon arrived at Have A Hug Ceramic Art Gallery and Cafe.
Clearly one of those little mostly undiscovered finds that sometimes get “found” during high season, a series of adorable ceramic statues greets patrons as they walk in and head to the café. Second only to Melbourne, Australia in terms of being a coffee haven, Chiang Mai sets the bar high and even small little shops in the middle of nowhere have great tasting coffee from all over the world as well as locally roasted. Usually choosing a boring iced latte (making sure to say “NO SHOE-GARRRRR“), I checked the menu because prices vary from shop to shop but tend to be less than 80 baht once you leave the yuppie shops of Nimman. We’ve even found great tasting coffee for as little as 35 baht.
Most Thai shops offer the standard fix of coffee drinks both hot or cold like Cafe Latte, Americano, Mocha Cappuccino and a variety of tea that’s somehow better than teas we’ve had in the past. My favorite find so far is Iced Lemon Tea. Not anything like it sounds, it seems to be a dark reddish-brown color and without added sugar it’s got a tart kick that’s unlike any other iced tea I’ve had. (I’ve tried watching them make it and have yet to decipher the secret because it’s certainly nothing like Lipton Lemon Iced Tea Mix or a Twinnings tea bag straight up).
Not actually offering the best view of the rice fields, Have a Hug did have two palapas with cushions, lights and a fan with a view overlooking a small rice field that’s probably personal property and not used for commercial purposes. Also offering tables outside the café, it began filling up with families, local Thai girls and small groups and we wound up spending a few hours relaxing as a series of Jack Johnson albums played rather loudly. Unsure why almost all Thai coffee shops in the boonies play American pop music when very few of them speak more than a few words of English, we often forget where we are. Oddly enough, the surrounding countryside in the San Sei district looks strikingly similar to the Napa Valley only with rice fields instead of wineries.
We’re unsure if the art is for sale but they did have a small souvenir shop with artifacts, books and some cool looking local crafts. Having stayed longer than anticipated, we decided to simply order take-away and call that dinner and like most small Thai cafes, it didn’t disappoint. Offering small pizzas, some Thai curries, spaghetti and healthy salads, I forgot to take pictures of it all before we ate it but trust me, it was very good. And inexpensive like most of Thailand.
Being our second trip to a café in the rice fields, we’re learning they each have their own special charm and flair. Catching a rare two-day break from dreary skies reminding me of Vancouver in winter, one day last month we headed east for a little day trip and discovered a small but cute botanical garden on the road heading to Doi Saket. About ten minutes past the outer ring road you reach Tweechol Botanical Gardens. Set next to a resort, these relaxing gardens aren’t exactly a Thai version of Singapore’s Botanical Gardens (the only justifiable walk in Singapore’s uncomfortable humid slop) but they do allow for a pleasant shady stroll and once again, we enjoyed having the place mostly to ourselves in low season for a reasonable 100 Baht entry fee. Featuring some nicely shaped bushes, an orchid garden that’s always got some beautiful blooms, a strange cactus garden and an herb garden that had a sign listing 18 herbs, we strolled the shady lanes. (Oddly, we found only herb in the herb garden one so maybe someone moved them and forgot to tell the curator.) After a two-hour stroll, we came to a small petting zoo with some unusually docile ostriches but all they could do was follow and frown since the food pellet basket was empty.
Interrupting our serenity, a mini tour bus provided by the gardens pulled up and a bunch of tourists of unidentifiable backgrounds other than not being obnoxiously loud mainland Chinese pulled up so we moved on and headed back to the car. Only about fifteen minutes away we headed towards another coffee shop in the rice fields from the aforementioned Facebook post. Meandering through narrow rural roads right with no foreigners anywhere in sight, we paralleled a small river amazingly similar to a scene from Apocalypse Now and catching a glimpse of a small sign, we made a quick left turn on a side street and parked at 8 o’clock Coffee. Literally sitting on the rice fields, this two-story cafe offers a beautiful respite from city life and the coffee was tasty and dirt cheap. The overstaffed café included two ladyboys that chatted away as we moved upstairs, turned on the fan and allowed the afternoon to pass quietly.
Perhaps the biggest change for us so far is getting used to being so busy. Never exactly “social butterflies” in our working years, we’re both kind of set in our ways and usually kept a few close friends whose personalities, habits and social class mirror ours. But Chiang Mai is a small expat community where business owners and suppliers know each other, Facebook groups compete with each other (albeit usually in a friendly way) and attending social events is easier than it was in Penang. At any given event, along with the regulars, you also get a mixed bag of working class people, retired folks, entrepreneurs (digital nomads don’t count) and everything in between. But becoming Facebook friends with locals often presents its own set of issues. Awkwardness sets in if I comment negatively about someone’s food or en event they ran and since most people think I write well, my posts inevitably get flagged and noticed. While many groups have over 9,000 members, 95% of them never post anything and it’s easy to figure out the ones who like to hear themselves talk.
Oddly, some of our favorite writers and event organizers on local Facebook groups often turn out to be unusually inept at face to face meetings. Often wondering how someone can articulate so well on social media but not be able to look people in the eye and have meaningful conversations, I suppose that partly explains the dumbing down of citizens from once great developed nations now run by racist morons. Sometimes we wind up meeting people by chance that are so perfect as friends outside the social meet ups, we try to “keep them to ourselves” knowing they’d probably not be very compatible with certain types of people at some of the Facebook group events we attend. And we have yet to hang with the hiking crowd (which tends to be younger and much more fit than us) although there’s a lot of posts from people looking to take slower less competitive walks. So the possibilities seem endless once we figure out this Social Calendar thing. We’ve even been invited to two different events this weekend. Now isn’t that special?
Cheers from Sociable Northern Thailand. Feel free to leave sarcastic critiques and other comments that feed my desire to write more.