Tuesday, 31 May 2016

chiang mai festival of lights: sky lanterns, yi peng, & loy krathong

Amazing mass sky lantern release at Mae Jo, Chiang Mai.

I can't remember when, or how, I found out about the mass release of sky lanterns in Chiang Mai, but when I was planning our big 2014 Asia trip, I knew that it was one of the things I wanted to experience, and that was how we found our way to Thailand to participate in the festivities of October and November 2014.

Our first stop was the Mae Jo mass lantern release event in October. We booked accommodation near the Mae Jo University specifically for this, which was an awesome decision - while the crowds struggled to make their way home in the traffic at the end of the night, all we had to do was walk!

Plus, the views from our hotel were so pretty.

Beautiful serene views in Mae Jo.

And the resident cat is the most gorgeous, adorable thing.

A sweet cat at Mae Jo.

On the afternoon of the event, we were plodding there on foot under the hot sun, when a wonderfully kind woman and her lovely mum stopped their car and asked us if we wanted to hop in, and we did!

We walked together to the venue after the car was parked, but at some point we lost each other - then, to our delight, we found them again, and plonked ourselves down in the same section. The event consisted of the Lanna Kathina ceremony, where monks receive their robes in recognition of their merit, and the Lantern Release ceremony, where everyone in the venue lights up their paper lanterns and float them into the sky.

Releasing sky lanterns at Mae Jo.

Thanks to the guidance of our new friends, our sky lanterns floated upwards effortlessly! Not everyone was so lucky - some lanterns got stuck in the trees nearby, while others were released too soon by inexperienced attendees, resulting in the lanterns collapsing into themselves, going up in flames, and crashing right back to the ground!

But see this one right here? This was our lantern. Isn't it just magnificent? That rush of exhilaration when we let our lantern go and see it soar to the sky, together with hundreds of others rising up all around us within the same few seconds, to join the hundreds more already up there - it was completely and utterly magical, and it took my breath away.

The floating lanterns ceremony at Mae Jo was just absolutely magical.

Fireworks were NOT allowed, but people don't always play by the rules in Thailand. I think the fireworks were unnecessary - in a way, I feel that it detracted from the pure and simple beauty of the lanterns in the sky.

Floating lanterns and fireworks.

As the night drew to an end, and most people have had enough of releasing lanterns, we wandered around the venue, and I noticed two young monks on the front stage - tidying it up and putting away the various ceremonial objects, perhaps?

Young monks wrapping up the stage after the Lanna Kathina ceremony and sky lanterns event.

So that happened. What an unforgettable evening.

Fast forward to November, and we were back in Chiang Mai again after going full circle on the Mae Hong Son Loop - just in time for the Yi Peng festival and Loy Krathong festival.

The festival of lights add a special something to evenings in Chiang Mai.

The magical vibe continues - everywhere we go, we see lanterns dotting the night sky like fairy dust.

Those are not stars in the sky - they're floating lanterns!

You just can't help but get caught up in the marvelous atmosphere.

The hustle and bustle of Chiang Mai during the Yee Peng festival.

At this time of the year, you can buy little krathongs (floating baskets)  in Chiang Mai to release them onto Ping River.

People selling and buying krathongs (illuminated floating baskets) during the Loi Krathong festival.

We didn't buy any krathongs as we were content to be onlookers to the proceedings. If you do purchase a krathong, I would suggest getting a biodegradable, environmentally-friendly one made from plant materials, such as those created from banana trees or spider lily plants. Apparently there are bread krathongs as well, which the river fish will happily eat!

Crowds of people floating their krathongs down the Ping River.

There are also street parades of giant krathongs, which involves processions of elaborately decorated structures with good-looking men and women perched on top. I read somewhere that these cheerful, smiling people are actually also candidates in a beauty pageant conducted that night!

A smiling beauty perched on top of a giant krathong at a night parade in Chiang Mai.

Elsewhere, people continue to release lanterns to the sky. While it is not a synchronised event like the one at Mae Jo, it is still fun and fabulous.

All around Chiang Mai, people are releasing sky lanterns!

I love watching the excitement and anticipation on the faces of those preparing to release their lanterns, and then their captivated expressions and looks of joy as the lanterns float successfully into the sky.

Happiness is releasing a sky lantern.

And the young ones are in on it, too!

Children getting ready to release a sky lantern.

I'm so glad I planned this trip to Chiang Mai - it was everything I hoped for, and more - there is nothing like actually being there - that surpasses the most stunning photos and the most eloquent descriptions that captured my imagination. It also seems that we went at just the right time, as the future of the free Mae Jo event is in doubts, and there might only be a ticketed event moving forward. We will just have to see what happens. But meanwhile, the festivals of Yi Peng and Loy Krathong are here to stay, so keep an eye out for the dates every year, and mark it on your calender!

Coming to life at night... the vibrant festival of lights in Chiang Mai.

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Thursday, 26 May 2016

chiang mai: dara vietnamese restaurant, a joyful eating experience

Dara Vietnamese Restaurant, also referred to as Dara Vietnam Food.

So, what might possibly be our most favourite restaurant in Chiang Mai isn't actually a Thai restaurant. It's Dara Vietnam Food, a charming Vietnamese restaurant just outside the Chiang Mai old city square. Dara was a recommendation from my parents, who visited Chiang Mai before we did. Their driver took them there, and they loved it! In turn, they raved to me about the food, and I just knew I had to go there. Delicious things, plus the opportunity to retrace a few of my parents' footsteps in a foreign country? Awesome!

Dara looks fairly unassuming from the outside - if you weren't looking for it, you might go right past if you weren't paying attention, but walk in and you'll be delighted - at least, we were: a lovely wooden interior, warm tones, it just all felt very comfortable.

I settled in with a stimulating iced ginger tea, while Simon had a Vietnamese coffee.

Iced ginger tea at Dara Vietnamese Restaurant (15 baht). Simon's Vietnamese coffee, not shown, was 25 baht.

We partook in a Vietnamese do-it-yourself dish with little square rice paper wrappers, fresh herbs, homemade meatballs, assorted diced vegetables, and a peanut dipping sauce. We softened the rice paper squares in the bowl of water provided, then placed a bit of everything onto each square before wrapping it up into a tiny parcel and popping it into our mouths. It was fun!

Do-it-yourself Vietnamese rice paper rolls (goi cuon) - or in this case, more like Vietnamese rice paper parcels (100 baht).

We also had some rustic-style banh hoi - rice vermicelli bundles with grilled pork ribs and spring onion oil dipping sauce.

Bun hoy (more typically spelled banh hoi) at Dara Vietnam Food (40 baht).

We enjoyed our first meal at Dara so much that we returned for round two. Due to the abundance of food stalls, cafes, and restaurants in Chiang Mai, we rarely visited any eatery more than once - this is testament to how much we liked it here.

Also, also, did I mention that there is an adorable cat at Dara?

The first time, when we dined indoors, Dara cat hung out with us indoors. The second time, we decided to enjoy the fresh air in the courtyard area at the back, so of course, Dara cat hung out with us outdoors. HAPPINESS. We love Dara cat. Dara cat loves us. Life is beautiful.

The kitty at Dara Vietnamese Restaurant is super sweet! <3

But I assure you that we didn't return just for the cat. It's definitely for the food and drinks, too!

Unfortunately, the second time around I didn't jot down any notes, and given this was so long ago, now we play the guessing game. Is this an iced ginger tea, or an iced bael tea? Or something else entirely? Whatever it is, doesn't it look wonderfully refreshing?

Another iced drink - possibly iced ginger tea again, but could also be iced bael tea or something else.

At least with this dish, I know what it is for sure, it's so easy to identify: a Vietnamese pancake! One of Simon's favourite dishes. As with our first meal, glorious fresh herbs make an appearance again, so verdant and abundant.

Banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake) at Dara Vietnam Food.

And here's what the perfectly-cooked pancake filling looks like. Absolutely luscious.

The scrumptious filling inside the Vietnamese pancake.

We had rice paper rolls again, but this time, instead of the DIY version, we went for the chef-prepared version!

Vietnamese rice paper rolls / summer rolls / salad rolls at Dara Vietnamese Restaurant.

Finally, this dish. I'll be honest and say I really cannot remember what this is. Clearly it's some kind of deep-fried snack. Vegetable fritters? Fish cakes? Shrimp cakes? I don't know. But I'm sure it was excellent, because I certainly don't remember not relishing any dish we had at Dara. Everything here was splendid.

What do you think this is? Vegetable fritters, fish cakes, or shrimp cakes?

Needless to say, if we ever return to Chiang Mai (and I sincerely hope we do!), Dara will be on our itinerary again, for sure. Both our visits here were just so satisfying. Thanks, mum and dad, for the recommendation!

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Sunday, 22 May 2016

chiang mai day trip: to lamphun for longans

Dipterocarpus Alatus - the majestic rubber trees that line the route from Chiang Mai to Lamphun.

Just a short and sweet travel post today, about our day trip from Chiang Mai to Lamphun. After several days in Chiang Mai we thought it would be interesting to experience a change in scenery. Lamphun is one of Thailand's oldest towns, it seemed charmingly quaint from what I read on the internet, it is known for its tasty longans, and it is pretty close to Chiang Mai - less than an hour away on a scooter. So, Lamphun it was.

The journey there was quite lovely in parts, particularly this stretch pictured above - flanked by gorgeous rubber trees, we felt a little thrill as we zoomed down the road - which wasn't particularly wide, but felt so fresh and spacious - delighting in the greenery, the small town feel, the morning breeze in our faces.

I will confess that we didn't really do much research on Lamphun, so when we got there, we just wandered around aimlessly. This indoor bazaar caught my eye, and in we went.

The OTOP indoor market/bazaar in Lamphun.

We noticed that many of the stalls had the "OTOP" sign on them - this stands for "One Tambon One Product", a program that encourages the marketing of local products of each sub-district in Thailand.

I didn't end up seeing any fresh longans while we were in Lamphun, but here, I purchased dried longans and candied dried pomelo peel - such delicious snacks! I also couldn't resist getting some longan incense sticks - the incense is made from dried, finely-ground longan shells, and I thought that was such a clever way of using the part of the fruit that is usually discarded.

The stalls inside Lamphun's OTOP shopping centre.

We also meandered onto some temple grounds. And ate ice cream. You know you're a food blogger when you only have a picture of the ice cream in focus while the pretty temples are relegated to blurry background material. But not even a diligent food blogger, because I don't remember what flavour of ice cream this was. Given the pale green colour, though, I'm thinking that it is most likely pandan ice cream.

Ice cream and temples in Lamphun. I think the temple is Wat Phra That Hariphunchai.

As I write this post, the internet tells me that there are a few more temple compounds in Lamphun, some that are quite ancient and intriguing. Due to the under-researched, unstructured nature of our day trip (or, let's make it sound better by saying it was casual and spontaneous!), we did not visit those while we were there, but if we ever find ourselves in Lamphun again, I'll make sure we explore the area more thoroughly. We did have a relaxed, leisurely time sauntering around the town, though, so even if we missed out on some significant historical sites and really didn't do a whole lot, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon!

Young monks in Lamphun.

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Monday, 16 May 2016

chiang mai: from night bazaar to sunday night market

Adorable doglet hanging out at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

For our very first night in Chiang Mai, we checked out the Night Bazaar. It's open every evening, and I think this is one of the setups that makes the city such a fun place to be - for those of us who don't frequent bars and nightclubs, it's great to have an alternative option, and Simon and I love markets!

The night had barely begun when we fell in love with the most adorable little dog just chilling out on a big green garbage bin. We devoted several minutes of our time to dog-patting, it was the sweetest thing - so sweet and docile and quiet, no hint of small dog syndrome in this one!

A fruit shake stall at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

There is no shortage of stalls selling freshly blended fruit shakes in Chiang Mai. We kicked things off with a passion fruit shake for 40 baht.

Passionfruit shake at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

We also grabbed some zingy herb sausage for 50 baht...

Chiang Mai herb sausage at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

And a very spicy green papaya salad for 40 baht... (It doesn't look spicy, but trust me, it was!)

Som tum (green papaya salad) at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

As well as some noodle roll thing for 30 baht...

Noodle roll at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

Then plonked ourselves down in front of the open stage area at Kalare Night Bazaar, where there were plenty of tables and chairs around for those who want to enjoy their food while partaking in free cultural shows in a convivial atmosphere. All in all, we had a very nice evening!

Musical performances at Kalare Night Bazaar.

So the above happened day one in our North Thailand trip. Fast forward to day nineteen, and we were checking out the night market scene in Chiang Mai again, this time at the Sunday Walking Street Market.

Noodle stall at Chiang Mai's Sunday Walking Street Night Market.

Our main meal this time around consisted of two small bowls of noodles for 35 baht each - noodles in green curry sauce, and khao soi, which we have been eating quite often in the Northern Thailand region (see here and here). Khao soi is also noodles in a curry sauce which seems to be of either the red or yellow curry variety, plus it is typically served with a lime wedge and crunchy noodles on top.

Khao soi from the noodle stall.

That wasn't enough, of course, so we supplemented with various snacks. Such as grilled bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms, which we have previously enjoyed in Pai - three bundles for 50 baht.

Bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms at the Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market.

For once, we went past a fruit shake/smoothie stall without purchasing anything...

A smoothie stall at the Sunday Market.

But we did stop at the juice stall, where I selected a guava juice for 10 baht, while Simon went for a passionfruit-infused beetroot juice for 15 baht.

A juice stall at the Sunday Market.

I kind of regret not trying the gac juice, as gac fruits look so intriguing!

Gac fruit at the markets.

We also splurged on some fancy ice cream on sticks, which cost us 35 baht per stick. Behold the delectable "crunchy lime" ice cream, which is basically like a frozen treat version of lime cheesecake. So good.

Crunchy lime popsicle from the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai.

Then there is the "chilli pineapple", which to me, kind of tastes like a refreshing Malaysian-style rojak (a sweet-savoury fruit and vegetable salad).

Chilli pineapple icy pole from the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai.

They also sell arts and crafts at this market...

An art stall at the Sunday Walking Street Market.

As well as shoes, clothing, souvenirs, and other stuff.

This darling dog was not for sale, but I'm sure many of the visitors of the night market would have loved to take it home with them. What a cutie!

Very cute doglet hanging out at the Chiang Mai Walking Street Sunday Night Market.

That's all for today - and hey, we're halfway through the Chiang Mai series! Hope you're having fun reading the posts - three down, three more to go! We'll meet again soon!

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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

chiang mai: free bird cafe, khun nai mae, and catmosphere

If you're only here for the cat pictures, feel free to scroll down.

What do you do in Chiang Mai? Go on a temple-hopping spree? Visit an elephant sanctuary? Do a Thai cooking class? Watch a Thai boxing match? There are so many things a tourist can do here, and despite spending a number of days here, we did none of those things (and I'm kind of thinking, we should go back and do them!). Aside from the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Festival, a large chunk of our time in Chiang Mai was spent wandering around, eating and drinking. Checking out shopping malls and night markets. Watching a movie at the cinema once or twice. Basically, we just chilled out, most of the time.

And Chiang Mai is such a great place for chilling out. There are so many cafes and restaurants here that beckon to you, tempting you to walk in, and to linger.

Free Bird Cafe is such a place. With a gentle and relaxed atmosphere, this Burmese-influenced eatery is a gorgeous not-for-profit venture, in which the proceeds go towards the assistance of Burmese refugees and the hill tribe people in Thailand.

The offerings here are enticing and wholesome. Of course, the prices are on the high side, but hey, you're nourishing your body and supporting a good cause when you dine here, so it's a two-for-one. Coming in at 80 baht each, the smoothies are lush and exciting: the Muay Thai smoothie is a stimulating mix of pineapple, lime, basil and chilli, while Kate's First Aid proffers refreshing comfort with an exquisite blend of pineapple, lemongrass, yoghurt and lime.

Smoothies at Free Bird Cafe - Muay Thai (left) and Kate's First Aid (right).

We also had a Burmese-style ginger-pumpkin curry set (with rice, soup, and sliced raw vegetables) for 130 baht, as well as a choice of three salads for 140 baht. The food was fantastically fresh. If I was a character in a video game, my health meter would be off the charts after consuming this.

Lunch/brunch at Free Bird Cafe - Burmese Shan salads, curry and rice.

Another time, when we were looking for a place to eat after purchasing bus tickets, we stumbled upon a restaurant called Khun Nai Mae Kitchen at the Star Avenue Lifestyle Mall, close to the Chiang Mai bus station. Being somewhat outside the central part of Chiang Mai, Khun Nai Mae doesn't seem to see many foreigners (we were the only non-locals there at the time), despite the attractive decor.

We were inside the restaurant as soon as it opened, and we started off with some thirst-quenching drinks. I can't say for sure if I remember this correctly, but I'm almost certain that the green drink is bai bua bok, a rejuvenating herbal juice made from Asiatic pennywort, while the red drink is probably nam kra jieb - delightfully tart roselle juice.

Iced beverages at Khun Nai Mae - I think the green one is pennywort, and the red is roselle.

As I drafted this post, I looked online for English reviews of Khun Nai Mae, to no avail, other than a write-up from the bilingual Compass magazine. I checked out the Thai reviews via Google Translate, and at this point I find out that, apparently, Khun Nai Mae means "Your Mother's Noodles". I am wary about trusting Google Translate, but it sounds plausible. Anyway, it seems that they make the rice vermicelli fresh daily at this restaurant. How lovely! I wish I knew this when we were there, I think I would have appreciated our meal even more, knowing the care that went into it.

We were impressed with our lunch at Khun Nai Mae, in any case. There were curries, and served alongside those were delicate bundles of rice vermicelli, some in a classic white, others slightly tinted with soft, pretty hues. Then there were vegetables such as beansprouts, cabbage, bitter melon, snake beans, and pickled mustard greens.

All that food, and our drinks, came to a total of 200 baht. Not bad at all!

Lunch at Khun Nai Mae - vermicelli, curry, and assorted vegetables.

And of course, while we wandered our way through Chiang Mai, we also made sure we set aside an afternoon for Catmosphere, which claims to be the world's first global space cat cafe franchise (there is a branch in Sydney as well). It looked pretty snazzy. It was busy, but we were lucky and didn't have to wait too long for a table to open up. Then, we just had to use hand sanitizer and put on slippers - all provided by the cafe - and we were ready to embark on our cat-patting journey here.

The space-themed Catmosphere cat cafe in Chiang Mai.

We could choose to either pay an entry fee, or purchase food and/or drinks from the menu, and we opted for the latter. I had a kiwi soda for 75 baht and a blueberry cheesecake for 115 baht. Simon had a coffee for 85 baht and a brownie for 95 baht. The presentation for Simon's brownie included a cat face drawn with chocolate sauce!

Brownie at Chiang Mai's Catmosphere cat cafe.

When we visited, quite a few of the cats were taking an afternoon nap.

Sleepy kitty.

These two were just too adorable.

More sleeping kittens! Curled up together, too cute!

Others were awake and alert.

Darth - a black cat with a perpetually funny face.

It's reasonably comfortable in here, and the space theme is fun to look at.

 Apollo the ginger cat admires the space-themed decor at Catmosphere cat cafe, Chiang Mai.

When this one woke up, we couldn't help but notice the colour of the eyes - one yellow, one blue. So striking!

Luna, an odd-eyed cat - a white cat with heterochromia.

The main downside that I observed here is that many of the cats at Catmosphere seem to be fed up with the human attention that they receive - perhaps they were having a particularly bad day when we visited, but most of them were not keen to interact with the guests, so this is definitely an aspect where I hope to see improvements. Keep the cats happy, and the rest will follow, right? This sweet ginger kitten is an exception, though - full of youthful optimism and gloriously playful, and we got to enjoy a bit of quality time with him, so all was not lost!

Boba, a sweet and playful ginger kitten.

So there you have it. The restaurant and cafe culture in Chiang Mai is really quite substantial, enough to keep us sufficiently entertained most days. And then there are those night markets... but that's a subject for the next post!

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