Street Food and Smiles: Northern Thailand is an absolute must for travelers

By on November 8, 2017

Everywhere you look in Chiang Mai, Thailand, you’ll find smiles: Smiles Books, Smiles Hotel, Smiles Hostel. It’s the land of smiles, smiles, smiles.

Not as odd as it sounds considering how kind and, well, smiley the Thai locals we’ve met have been. I’m not talking the cold American mouth smile of acknowledgment either — I’m talking eye-contact smiles; the full-hearted, warm smiles that you feel in your fingertips.

“No wonder they’re all so happy,” my travel companion Micha said. “They eat so well.”

She was not wrong.

Part of that “eating so well” is thanks to the fantastic night street food market in Chiang Mai.

The market sits just left of the south entrance to Chiang Mai, where the road splits — one leads into old town, the other forks off to the right around the city wall —and, as a pleasant coincidence, it was a mere two blocks away from our hostel, making our visit an easy choice.

The market is a spectacular sight, filled with equally thrilling scents that waft in the air to lure tourists and locals to the wares.

All along the edge of the block, Thai women sit at their stands, their white masks covering their mouths as their brows sweat over the pots of fried noodles, Massaman curry and Tom-Kha soups.

Each booth has a “server” associated with it to take orders and deliver food to patrons, who sit at plastic tables that are carefully set out each night at 6 p.m. and taken down a few hours later.

“Let’s see what’s on the other side before we decide what to eat,” I said.

Micha nodded in agreement, her wide-eyed expression a mirror image of my own excitement and astonishment. The market really is a sensory overload — in a very good way.

Curious about what each stall offered, we crossed the street and found stands covered in dishes piled high with prepared food.

As we walked past stand after stand, the enticing wafts of food made it increasingly difficult to be patient and make an educated decision about what exactly to choose. The scent of charred fish emanating from a grill where five heavily salted, fat fish sat. It filled my stomach with grumbling greed.

The next stand had plate after plate of various fried rice and noodle dishes, each donning a beautiful splash of red, green and yellow, making it hard to pass up those vessels of spice and salt.

“Can we have one bag of that?” I asked, pointing to a green pile of what looked like sautéed Bok Choy and tofu.

“And that,” I said, adding to our order some prawns in a red sauce.

The man spooned a small portion of each into two separate plastic bags, tied them off, and handed them to me with a nod and a smile.

“20 Baht,” he said. That’s the equivalent of about eighty cents, a steal for obvious reasons.

We headed to a table in the square, opened our bags, and began to eat. The dishes were cold — an unexpected element — but the flavors were excellent. The vegetables were cooked perfectly, with the right amount of snap, but nowhere close to raw.

“Didn’t our travel doctor explicitly tell us that we should only eat hot food? You know, to make sure it’s not bad?” Micha said.

I looked up from the spoon I’d fervently been slurping cold curry sauce from, blinked, and then burst out laughing. Sometimes you just have to take a risk — and with the food you’ll find in the Chiang Mai market, it’s definitely worth the gamble.

The following night — with a day of exploring food, temples and markets under our belts — we felt much more equipped to tackle the street food scene, and as with the first go round, we were thrilled with our choices.

Micha, a vegetarian who occasionally adds in fish to her diet, found the perfect stand where a man sat behind rows of skewered vegetables and a makeshift grill, created from a grill top resting over a halved tin barrel with hot coals.

He brushed her chosen skewers with chili oil, and then sprinkled salt and seasoning on them before grilling them to perfection.

Following our food fore, we headed over to the Yi Peng light festival, where people released lanterns into the air to dispel evils and the past and open possibilities for the future before heading to the hippie town of Pai.

We were not disappointed.

The town of Pai is home to no more than 2,200 people. It sits on the Pai River and is nestled into the green, lush mountains of Northern Thailand. The abundance of guest houses make you realize immediately that this is a town that thrives off of tourism.

During the day, excursions to waterfalls, natural hot springs and caves are a must. In the evenings, the streets are lined with stands selling street food, leather bags, artwork and much more. The market here feels artisanal and communal — a bit different from Chiang Mai’s food stalls — but as with Chiang Mai, the food in Pai is exceptional.

We tried rice dumplings filled with bean curd; sticky rice grilled and served on a stick; and pad Thai fried to order in a wok. Each choice proved to be the perfect one.

These little food treasures make our departure from the north part of Thailand a regrettable one, but we leave with our bags heavy with gifts and our stomachs full of good food and love for this mountain town. PJH

About Helen Goelet

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