Chiang Rai, the northern Thai town not yet too big for its boots. We slingshot in and out, taking in some of the small town but big flavours this place has to offer.
At the end of the boat ride from Tha Ton you land up at this jetty a few km's outside of Chiang Rai. Hanging around are a few drivers waiting to pick up the tourists, but as we arrived earlier than the normal boat they were in the middle of eating lunch a card game and asked us to wait 'Taxi, 10 minutes, OK?' Sod that.
We decided to hoof it into town instead, the morning was reasonably cool and having our small backpacks made it easy to walk in and after a two hour boat ride our bums were pretty numb too. We also got to see some of the riverside neighbourhood and residential streets, there are a few hotels around this area to stay in.
Chiang Rai still retains a bit of a country feel in the centre, a much slower pace. The backpacker/tourist area seems more compact, not spread out across the town and on every street corner like CM. Sure there's a bar street and a few fringe streets with massage parlours, trekking and motorbike shops but most of the town seems pretty regular old regional Thai.
Along Jedyod Road, the main tourist strip, there's a few friendly souls. We made friends with this one outside the laundry.
Along Jedyod Road is this hard to miss bright blue eatery serving up bowls of noodles inside, with independent stalls at the front of the store.
Khao Soi Phar Joi menu. Helpful english translations.
Khao Soi in multiple variations and some northern Thai classic dishes as well.
Open air prep station, everything ready to go.
We decide not to go for the khao soi here, there's other more interesting soups to try out. The white noodle soup with pork had a lighter broth and strips of pork, not as heavy as a khao soi which can verge on sludgy at times.
Pork and blood cube soup with a chilli stock base. Pork and blood cubes are a wonderful match, don't be put off by the thought of eating these black beauties.
This iced tea doesn't fall into the usual trap of being overly sugary. In fact it has a salty sweetness just perfect for the hot weather, no need for electrolytes.
A not so hot papaya salad, but we were kind of thankful for that.
Northern style sausage, pork mixed with herbs and served with hunks of fresh garlic and coriander.
Green chilli dip (nam prik or nam phrig) just made for a packet of pork rinds or eaten with the sausage.
Later in the afternoon we went out to forage for beers but sales are blocked between 2pm and 5pm so we ended up perusing these ready made waffle and toast snacks instead.
The store will happily heat these up for you until they become a hot, sweet and often savoury snack. This one was a little bit awesome - it's like a jaffle made with pancakes instead of bread, filled with custard. We had also tried ones with sausage but that's better left uncommented on.
The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar seemed worth checking out for dinner possibilities. A large open air food court with recorded music piped through and sometimes live stage shows, the eating area was a large space filled with yellow metal chairs and tables with the stalls around the outside. Most of the food stalls were the same, mostly selling choose-your-own hot pots, small clay bowls filled with stock that you dipped vegetables, cockles, mussels or mushrooms into. Salt baked fish was also popular. For the not so brave, pad thai and deep fried seafood was on offer. We weren't enthused by the selections so we just had a beer and watched the passing parade.
On the way back to the Mercy Hostel a food stall had set up close to the clock tower, mostly selling khao soi in a few different varieties although their main sign advertised pad thai as the draw card (no thanks, not for us tonight). We tried out a stodge maximiser fried rice (30 baht) that was a good base for the soups. The stewed beef was tender and the sauce was a good thickness, while the base flavour gave you room to add more heat if needed. The NZ mussels were hearty and the crisp noodles generous. The side fixins' were help yourself, lots of pickled mustard, chopped onions and more chilli. 70 baht for the mussels and 60 baht for the beef.
Morning wanderings around the town inevitably lead to markets.
Inside the market building was a central collection of hot food sellers. The place wasn't too busy, most of the market action was probably over.
Most of the sellers had noodle soups, fried rice or fried noodles. It was all pretty simple fare.
Pork leg stewed with soy and egg, with a good serve of pickled mustard. Comfort on a plate.
Crunchy Pork Soup, all the porky offal cuts with crunchy pork crackling soaked into the broth and tofu puffs.
A coconut cake rounded out the breakfast, as you do.
Rounded little piles of red curry pastes and shrimp pastes of varying degrees of flavour and heat. Who says you have to make everything from scratch at home when you can get what you need at the market?
Small pickled crabs with bright red pincers for pounding into salads or pastes for extra pungency.
Oh, the chillies.
We walked all morning around the town looking at the fresh markets and informal sellers just loaded up with goodies in the street. There were so many different vegetables: cauliflower, broccoli, small red tomatoes, yams, sweet potato, potatoes, green veg, flowering gai lan (chinese broccoli), oranges, strawberries and gooseberries still encased in their papery shells. We also spied what looked like muddy clods of tobacco leaves or dried varieties.
We chose to try out one of the pick'n'mix with rice stalls we spied earlier, the food looked fresh with a good turnover.
How to choose?
A troop of ladies who lunch piles into the resto as we sit down.
Selections from top included a spicy hot eggplant and green bean curry, sweet and sour fried fish, a mix of mushrooms and corn with very Chinese soy flavours and a light fish mousse, hor mok, with a dash of coconut milk over the top. A mix of Thai and Chinese flavours, not surprising considering the mix of people and proximity to China.
Dessert sorted with tapioca and coconut milk.
Afternoon adventures awaited. We ventured down the back lane of our hostel which hadn't looked very interesting at first...
...but at the bottom was a whole new world of food stalls!
Most of the food was deep fried, but we were most intrigued by the eggs on sticks.
Each egg was cooked through, but somehow the insides had been transformed into a tastier filling. Almost a little eggy miracle.
When we were deciding what to do for the afternoon, we considered our options. We could have gone on a tour of the White Temple or the Black Museum. We could have gone to the Hill Tribe Museum. But no, none of that. The most exciting suggestion of all was to walk for about half an hour down a busy main road with no footpaths (the day was overcast and not too hot) and go to THE MALL!
The walk took us through the outskirts of Chiang Rai, past a number of different sales outlets, a hospital and fashion sellers.
Is this Amitabh Bachchan in full 1970s glory on these hand painted truck mud flaps?
Perhaps this fellow in his smart coat could help us find the way.
Or perhaps we could drop into Sperm 90, the best bar name in the whole of the world, complete with robot.
The mall itself was new and big with a load of western style stores, fast food chains and a huge supermarket with a large wine selection, western groceries as well as Thai food. Perfect for the expat or homesick traveller. The usual chains were there, KFC, McDs, Black Canyon Coffee, most banks had an ATM, a large number of tech stores, even a cinema. Perfect if you needed an air con respite for an afternoon.
Loved these pandan flavoured milk candies, although the plastic wrappers stuck on just a little bit too tightly and we ended up pulling little bits of plastic out of our mouth every now and then.
We walked back to town down a different main road, loads of Thai style pubs along the way and this yard full of bright spirit houses. Chiang Rai is a much bigger town than it seems at first.
Fluffy the guard dog. He means business.
The next best way to spend some idle hours is to sit down in the town cat cafe, Cat'N'A Cup. As their motto goes, "Cup is better with some Cats!"
The cats here seemed to like their lot in life and were able to have breaks from all the attention, they really ran the show. It was a place for everyone, there were single guys eating meals and patting cats, older ladies who missed their own ones at home and crazy cat folk like us who wanted to sit and have a beer and get some pussycat action. That could have been written to sound so wrong.
So we spent the afternoon at the mall, patted some cats so why not end the day with burgers? Sometimes a hit of some western food when travelling gives you a little taste recalibration, well that's our excuse anyway. The Sanfran Burger and Beer food truck occupies a vacant lot just around the corner from the clock tower that is slowly growing with a few other stands.
The burgers were great, there was care taken in the cooking and assembly. The burgers were flame grilled out on a little open BBQ by the side of the orange combi van, the buns weren't sweet, the cheese was USA style yellow and melty and the fries were chunky and cooked well. For 120 baht it was a pricy meal if you are on a budget but if you crave a burger in Chiang Rai avoid the 100 baht versions in bars and get into these.
Basic noodles and pork balls, mince and roast bits in one bowl.
A good fishy khao soi to get the morning started.
We had a brief Chiang Rai intermission while we headed off to Chiang Saen for a couple of nights, we'll cover that in a separate story. The bus station is currently under development which should make the rides in and out of town easier in future.
Back in town a few days later we check into the Boonbundan bungalows around the corner from the Mercy Hostel. At 300 baht a night it will do us for a quick one nighter, and the staff couldn't be any nicer although they tend to sleep on the job. Although the Mercy was certainly clean it was just a bit too 'nice', this place was more what we are used to and perfectly fine especially for the price.
We were still just off Jedyod Rd so could pick up where we left off exploring the town. Just west of the clock tower along Banpaprakan Road is Rod Yiem, which must be something popular judging from all the photos on the walls of famous Thais who have eaten here. They claim to be the 'only noodle shop in Chiang Rai that serves top quality beef’, so we had to test it out.
The classic beef soup was like a boat noodle soup variety, with tender, springy beef meatballs. We were lucky to get in, they turned away people as we slurped around 2.00pm.
Chiang Rai has a large mosque in the centre of town, Darun Aman, built by Chinese muslim migrants from Yunnan. It's a beautiful building, lovely green tiles with blonde brick sandstone. We'd sniffed some good looking food spots around here earlier, all those faithful gotta eat too.
Immediately across the road from the mosque along Isaraparb Road was this small no-name stall with a few pots outside.
One look inside revealed beef nam ngiaw stewing away quietly. This version also had a high number of red kapok flowers in the mix, adding unique texture to the stew. Also different was the use of a fresh pickle instead of the usual pickled mustard greens, a small dash of fresh lettuce, bean sprouts and a wedge of manao (lime) offered. The limes up this part of the word aren't the kalamansi type, they're much larger like the Tahitian version.
It was the smile that got us in, a friendly face enticing you to eat works everytime.
Still wandering we came across a flower show, very formal and very beautiful. No need to head to Floriade this year we're done.
Coffee (the super sweet 3 in 1 concotion that just rots your teeth thinking about it) and some sweets from the flower fair.
It's getting late in the afternoon and schools out, which means after school snacks!
Corn in a cup not so popular today.
These enoki mushrooms wrapped in ham skewers are flying off the griddle.
A quick bite and we know why, the salty ham works beautifully with the mushrooms and a splash of chilli sauce.
And then of course we just start wandering back streets and get a little lost. The houses we see along the way are great, real typical sixties looking breeze block architecture. It's these streets we love walking down the most, peaking into compounds with multiple houses grouped together, spirit houses in various state of attention, loose dogs, dogs asleep in their coats, random cats, kids playing and shouting and always getting in the way of someone who needs urgently to drive down the street in their 4WD.
"Look, over there. Farangs with a camera."
"Oh, I see them, over there!".
We cheekily enticed this shy fellow out for a pat from the safety of his shopfront.
Once you come out and pat, you can't go back.
Early evening eaters. This little resto in the suburbs caught our eye because it was sort of an upmarket version of your usual Thai economy rice shop. The photos doesn't quite capture the nice-y, nice-y, middle-classs-ness of the joint, but it was quite a pretty shop packed with Thai ladies-who-lunch.
Heading back home.
Back at the bungalows the staff have woken up enough to have a chat.
The house dog even comes out for a natter on the front porch.
Later in the night we wander down the magic back alley we found a few nights before. It leads down to Satharn Payabarn Rd and all sorts of food wonders.
There's a few stalls set up outside the volleyball courts with pots of goodness and grills blazing.
We try yet more nam ngiaw, this one filled to bursting with pork blood cube, red cotton tree flowers, small green tomatoes pop their sweetness with a bite and irregular meatballs of pork give more texture. There's a choice of yellow or rice noodles and the broth is plentiful in the bowl.
We also chose some pick n mix random pig bits from the grill, anonymity preferable. These were super fatty, not big on flavour but serious beer soakers.
After fighting off mozzies, noisy aircon, squeaky beds and the effects of too much Mae Kong whisky (hey, you get what you pay for), we said farewell to the staff with a traditional Thai dog belly rub. The pattern on the the other side to his jacket - Care Bears all the way.
It wasn't the last dogs we would meet in Chiang Rai. One distant flick of a dog tail marked out this place as our breakfast destination.
This goldie mum and her mixed lab son were having a little dog argument but managed to hold it together when the toast and sausages came out.
There's something about this type of breakfast served across SE Asia. It reminds us more of travelling in Thailand than it does of meals at home. Typically served with lightly almost just warmed toast, margarine and pineapple jam, the egg and bread combo is a satisfying hit while the sausages are forever strange.
With a last dog eye-spy, we leave Chiang Rai to head back to Bangkok.
We love Thailand.