Week five in Chiang Mai I was walking along my favourite street, Sitihiwongse Road, and had a miniature revelation…
I’m living in Thailand.
I’d spent the morning wandering around Warorot market with the locals while bizarre chattering Thai melodies serenaded us over the speakers.
I’d slid my way through the rows of mopeds and snook into the market maze through one of the side entrances.
It wasn’t even 10am on a Sunday and already the canteen area was full of burning mist escaping from tiny holes in the bubbling cauldrons, billows of smoke rising from the piping hot grills and the pungent smells of well-seasoned cremated carcuses tormenting my questionable commitment to vegetarianism.
Little Thai ladies in their brightly coloured aprons with their hair tucked up in nets were guarding each of the stalls armed with giant ladels and equally giant smiles as the locals sat down to eat.
I had no idea what half of them were selling.
On one of the grills there were six oiled-up, silvery fish with slits in their stomachs that had been stuffed with nuts and leaves, staring vacantly up at the watering mouths of passers-by. On another there were a hundred pale, tiny bananas that looked more like sausages, dabbed in some sort of yellowy coconut jus and charring nicely.
Some stalls had mounds of meat and vegetable skewers at 5THB a piece and others were dishing out crushed crustaceans wrapped in bamboo leaves.
There were soups and gloops with doughy balls and spicy sprinkles. There were vats of noodles in all shapes and sizes, huge pots of stir fried vegetables and on the tables there were little Tupperware containers filled with sliced cucumbers, grated carrots and sauces all the colours of the rainbow.
Food here is kind of a big deal and before the Thais chow down, they bow down to Phosop, the goddess of rice, who makes sure everybody has enough to eat.
Eating out is only a fraction more expensive than eating at home and there’s no such thing as breakfast time, lunch time or dinner time – if you’re hungry, you eat – so everywhere you look there’s somebody nibbling something.
Chiang Mai is swarming with side-street canteens, hawker stalls and markets just like Warorot. Locals sit on plastic chairs at plastic tables in shabby shacks or on bumpy pavements next to busy roads with their plastic bowls and plastic cutlery, scoffing down their spicy feasts.
Solo dining is rare; the traditional way to get your scran on is to order one dish per person and share the lot amongst family and friends. It’s all about variety and they take great care to achieve harmony between hot, cold, sweet, salty, sour and spicy.
It’s just as much about the experience as it is the food and living it out like a local is a fast-track ticket to assimilation – do as the locals do, dine as the locals dine.
Although their eating etiquette is different and slightly more subdued than what I’m accustomed to, there are big lessons to be learned. Gratitude is abundant, greed is rare and there seems to be a real mindful focus on getting food from bowl to mouth to stomach.
After some kitchen action, I continued my meandering around the magical maze and at every turn I’d see something that would make me smile.
Past the blinging jewellery shops, through the sea of indigo jackets and round to the left, the rows got narrower, the stalls got fuller and I was barricaded in by gold Buddha paraphanalia.
Piles and piles of spirit houses, miniature Buddhas and statues of goddesses on top of each other, each one wrapped in unnecessary layers of plastic. Bright orange lays, huge yellow candles and thousands of incense sticks stacked way above my head subtly scenting the airwaves with whiffs of lavender and jasmine.
I turned left again and headed down some dark green steps into what looked like a Thai elves’ workshop.
My eyes squinted at the blinding colours, my jaw dropped and my inner child started squealing; I was in arts and crafts heaven. There were pom poms and tassles and all sorts of other textured delights in every colour.
I could have stayed and played for hours but sweet scents sparked my curiosity and led me up another set of steps back to ground level.
I was now smack bang in the middle of the main food hall but this time it was dried fruits, nuts and spices, fresh vegetables and jars of sauces.
Pretty packets of dried moringa, matcha tea, rose petals and butterfly pea flower. There were plastic bags filled with dried mushrooms and mangos and baskets fresh strawberries, heaps of almonds and pistachios and cashews.
Locals wandered the isles nattering out their weekend gossip and stacking up green baskets with all the goodness of an edible heaven.
Nobody rushed and nobody dawdled. It was the perfect Sunday market pace, set to one surprisingly un-irritating track of poetry and stringed instruments that had been on repeat since the moment I’d arrived.
A late Sunday brunch was calling so I headed out of the market, along the main road and over the little bridge guarded by stone lions that looks out onto the back of homes made of sticks. Then, just a bit further around to the right is my favourite little road in Chiang Mai so far – Sithiwongse Road.
I’d walked along past the wooden shacks, the makeshift convenience stores and the smoothie huts. I’d ducked under the washing lines that extend out across street, dodged the stray dogs, let the cats twirl around my ankles and talked to the bright purple birds in their cages. I’d smiled at the grandad lazing back in his hammock, with his hands behind his nodding head and sunglasses hiding his contentness as he rocked out to the radio.
It was thirty-five degrees, the sun was beaming down on me but I was no longer sweating like a wild bore, nor did I feel my lungs were deprived of air. Everything felt….well, normal.
And that’s when I had my little Sithiwongse Epiphany. I stopped still in tracks with a look of shock tugging on my facial muscles and said it out loud…
I live in Thailand.
All it took was a Sunday stroll and a few fried bananas that looked like sausages, and there I was ,once again loving life more than life itself.