An alternate food-related activity we discover is a Ping River boat cruise. One outfit offers a longtail boat trip that departs south of the city center and heads upstream for a two-hour ride. The Ping is slow-moving, and especially tranquil just 15 minutes out, where the city falls behind and the riverbanks reveal subsistence farmers and fishing families living in bamboo huts on stilts. The boat’s destination: a vegetable, fruit, and herb garden where you can taste fresh jackfruit and see kaffir limes growing on the tree. It’s instructive to see the produce as living and developing, not simply piled in markets as harvest or sliced and fried for the restaurant table. For the ultimate food and culture combination, a few days later we try the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Centre, the city’s most authentic khan toke dinner-theater show. The evening begins with a traditional meal, served on a three-legged teak or rattan table called a “khan toke.” Our shoes are off and we sit on mats before the outdoor stage. Then, the trays of pumpkin fritters, fried chicken, stir-fried cabbage, sticky rice, and hangleh (Burmese pork curry) arrive. About midway through the meal, a classical orchestra plays while dancers perform northern Thai steps, like a solo sword dance, a group depicting villagers reeling silk, and the slow and stately “fingernail dance.”
After the food is gone, we move to a smaller theatre to see performances from the Lahu, Hmong, Mien, Lisu, and Akha hill tribes. Their bright costumes and eerie pipe sounds add an inexplicable flavor to the evening, and I think back to the dinner I just consumed. The food surprised me; it was dull-coloured and less palatable compared with what we had prepared in school. I struggle to not pass judgment based on Western standards or what I now know about Thai food. I realize I would need more eating and more cooking before I could do that.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a travel writer and poet who has been featured in the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. He last wrote for the Grapevine on the Hiking the Scottish Highlands.
What to do:
Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School
1-3 Moonmuang Road, opposite Tha Phae Gate
Open Monday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday 9-6. About $20/day for a five- to six-hour class (10 a.m.-4 p.m. Or 4-9 p.m.). Price includes food, drinks, cookbook, transportation. Early booking is essential during high season.
Behind Wat Chaimongkhon on Thanon Charoen Prathet 011-66-53-274822 Daily 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; $7 with garden tour and refreshments. Dinner cruises 7:15-9 p.m., set menu, $9.25.
Old Chiang Mai
1853 Thanon Wualai
Open nightly 7-10 p.m.; $6.25 for northern Thai khan toke and hill-tribe performances, including dinner.
Call to reserve.