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Choosing a trek, the best Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai and a ladyboy in the gents

THAILAND | Monday, 6 April 2009 | Views [2504]

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The restaurant was closed, had a for sale sign outside and Jane and Steve were nowhere to be seen. We decided for one to have a look for a place to stay while the other minded the bags. Walking down the street it was clear there were absolutely tons of places so I asked to see a few rooms and found one, the North Star Guest House which was clean and only cost 150 baht – about 3 quid and the cheapest place so far on the trip. Claire did her own wander and we agreed to go to North Star after looking at a few other places which were either more expensive or not as nice.

The guys called up a little later and we met them to go and see about a trek. On my wanderings I stumbled across a place called Mr Pooh Eco Trekking which seemed to do something a bit different from the gazillion places peddling the elephant ride / bamboo raft / hill tribe visit trek to gap year traveller's so we checked it out. No elephants no bamboo rafts no tribes selling their wares – just trekking, learning about the culture of the village and a sustainability concept. I loved the idea but we went to one of the usual suspects just to get a comparison. A slick saleswoman greeted us and promised the world – for a third the price. We had a beer to help us decide on what to do. Claire and I were in favour of Mr Pooh, hoping for a more authentic experience while Steve and Jane were more concerned about their financial situation. In the end they came over to our side but were still I suspect worried about money. I had promised the saleswoman I would let her know before 6 and when I did she changed from a friendly and courteous woman to a pushy, aggressive person telling me she could do the same as Mr Pooh for cheaper. The change in character reinforced the decision we had made.

We went out with the guys to a really chilled out roof bar (THC – well worth a visit) and had a few drinks that turned into a lot more. It ended up a really crazy, Thai red bull fuelled night. A note on Thai red bull – it's not at all the same beast as the one at home – it really does give you wings but not necessarily the feathery ones in the ads – more like scaly dragon's wings. It was a rough night in the heady cocktail of high humidity, drunkenness and hectic Thai clubs.

The pre-trek briefing was at 6pm and we struggled down to it. Jane and Steve had decided to about face and go for the other trekking option – I don't blame them – there was no point stressing about money when an alternative they were happy with was so easy and accessible. They were heading off the next day but now we had to wait until some other people joined the trek – it really was too expensive to do it on our own. Rey, the Thai guy who was to be our guide discussed options with us and we reckoned the best thing was to wait and see. We wandered around looking for a greasy hangover cure and, unable to find a BK or McDs, guiltily had a posh burger and chips. We changed rooms at the guesthouse to one with a TV so we could veg out. The first episode of Thundercats was was what we got – I couldn't have wished for something more appropriate. At midnight the bar across the road cranked up the music and dashed our hopes of a peaceful night.

I hadn't been happy with my hair since Bangkok. (I know that sounds like a terribly vain thing to say but what I really wanted was a monk-esque blade zero all over, for perhaps the only time in my life and what I had was just a shorter version of my normal hair.) I needed a shave too so I went to the little man on our street and got my head shorn. It felt great and somehow gave me a greater sense of clarity on things.

We went back to Mr Poohs too see if anyone had joined and as we were there a Japanese couple signed up. We would leave in 4 days. This took away the uncertainty of timing and freed us up to do some of the other things CM offered – we signed straight up for a cookery class the following day.

After looking at a good few brochures the school we liked most was, fittingly enough “The Best Thai Cookery School”. It seems that the 3 most popular schools are owned by 3 brothers, the oldest of which is a TV celebrity chef. The Best School which we chose was the only one where the owner teaches the classes himself.

We were picked up by a sawngthaew (an unexpected MOT 33 which is essentially a small truck which, instead of the back being used for freight has 2 benches installed so it can take passengers) and taken directly to a market where Permpoon Nabanian the owner-chef of the school introduced himself and the classmates to each other. We would be joined by a gaggle of English gap year girls, an Irish and a Scottish couple, a Canadian chap and an Israeli family.

Perm was great – very engaging, slightly crazy and a huge regularly used grin, especially when laughing at his own jokes. We learnt about the unfamiliar ingredients we would be using for the day: holy basil, lesser ginger, kaffir lime, palm sugar. We were told about the different types of rice to use, how to choose the best eggs and shown bizzare essentially rotten eggs used as an aphrodisiac. Tamarind and tofu and a crash course in coconut (water, milk and cream) and curry paste.

Back in the sawngthaew for the drive out to Perm's school in the suburbs. We were all sat around in a circle, each with our own little workstation and utensils. First up was soup – Tom Yam and Coconut milk – quick to make and incredibly tasty. Then the dishes came thick and fast – Perm was an infectious, hilarious whirlwind. We cooked about 12 dishes in the day, the highlights of the morning being spicy papaya salad – in fact all Thai food is spicy – sticky rice with mango and deep fried spring rolls. I think the big learn for Claire and I is that it's so quick and easy to make Thai food – once you have the ingredients! It's all so healthy too – you almost never see an over-weight Thai.

We had a rest from eating over what would normally be called lunch and got stuck into the curries and pad thai in the afternoon. The group were a really good craic as well except, sadly, for the Israeli family – the parents were almost but not quite as misbehaved and blissfully unaware of their own impact on the day as the children. They took calls and received texts throughout and talked over Perm for the whole day and even had the gall to disagree with him over the ingredients and cooking methods. The big photo moment was making a big flame in your wok while making pad thai. The secret was to get the wok really smoking hot and add water to the ingredients as you throw them in. The Israeli mother kept turning her flame down “it smoke too much” and lo and behold her flame never happened. At one point one of the rude children ran past my workstation and almost knocked my pot over himself. I held back from reprimanding him in the hope that one of the parents would but the mother was splayed out on the ground guzzling diet coke and blocking everyone's path and I think the dad was on the phone. The kids even started bating the barky dogs next door at one point and whined no chili, no eggs, no vegetables at every possible moment. I hate stereotypes but they did everything to perpetuate what people seem think of the Israeli nation and its people. Can one race all be the same? Even more I hate the fact that as I write this their bad manners and misbehaviour are as memorable as the class itself.

At the end of the day we sat down to the feast we had prepared and unsuccessfully attempted to polish it off as Perm brought yet more food for us to sample – Thai fruit – pomelo, star fruit and rose apples. Stuffed and a lot more knowledgeable we piled into our sawngthaews as the Israelis argued with Perm about paying for the soft drinks they had all been guzzling throughout the day. No-one had told them about the water cooler in the corner of the room it seems – but everyone else knew about it. I pity them.

Despite our Israeli friends the rest of the group actually got on really well and arranged to meet up that night for drinks. We headed to a touristy collection of bars surrounding a Thai boxing ring which put on free shows. The place had something for everyone -our group contented ourselves with pool and free popcorn but if you were into that kinda thing there was a lady boy bar with lots of stunning, scantily clad “girls”. It was a bit disconcerting to be minding my own business at the urinal and have someone with a very short skirt and very big boobs follow me in, hawk up the skirt, unload their bladder and turn to me and say coyly “Wanna good time big boy?” There were tons of older, 60+ and younger Caucasian men happily groping young Thai girls (and boys some of the lads said although I didn't see it). These were probably the primary market for the cute but pushy children who came along annoyingly peddling roses every 5 minutes. Even the boxers came out with a box looking for tips after every bout. After seeing the real deal in Bangkok it was a bit like seeing WWF on TC as a kid – why was there always a knockout and how did they always manage to get up and ask for tips.

That all sounds pretty negative but that's what it was like and we did have a great night – the company was good and the beer flowed – no crazy red bull this time! I guess to continue the culinary exoticism of the day we all engaged in some peer pressure based munching at the deep fried insect stall conveniently located beside the bar. Claire and I had a few grubs and worms but the major event was ripping the wings and legs off a large (little finger sized) cicada and washing it down with some beer. A good night had by all although perhaps unsurprisingly Claire's tummy wasn't in the best shape by the end of it.

Tags: boxing, culture, drinking, food, israeli, ladyboy, mot

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