From Thailand with Love
I have Radiohead’s ‘All I Need’ running through my mind as we peddle through the side streets. The song is out of place considering my current situation but Radiohead is my only thought as my bike slips out of gear for the 6th time in an hour. My mind drifts for a moment and I am swept back to Vancouver three years ago to Thunderbird stadium. I am swaying to and fro as the band plays for over 3 hours. A car beeps behind me, I jerk the handle bars to steady myself and I am back to reality. We have reached the end of our road and are about to turn onto the main street once more. At this moment I am sure of one thing. The rain that is pouring down on us today is worse than that concert three years ago. Up until today, I considered that evening the worst rain I have ever had to stand in. But I am no longer in Vancouver. In fact, I am in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the rain that is splashing down on us is hard, unrelenting and fat. We have been here for just over two weeks now. After days of evening out tan lines and eating four square meals a day in the country’s south, we have headed north to round out the first leg of our two month tour throughout Southeast Asia. Today, we are the only people who have signed up for a city bike tour or at least, we are the only ones who have shown up.
Our guide is kind, soft spoken and intuitive. He notes right away that we are uninterested in the commercial haunts that are easily travelled by foot and suggests that we travel to the city’s outskirts towards the rice fields. He adds that there are some nice bike trails out this way, easier than the city’s rough streets. Our ponchos crinkle as we nod in agreement, allowing more rain to slip down our necks and soak our shirts. The bike trails are beautiful indeed. They are gentle paths through quiet residential areas in which locals can view three lunatics peddle through sheets of rain out the comfort of their own homes. To get to this point, however, we have had to fight through Chiang Mai traffic. In which driving regulations are regarded less as law but rather helpful hints and loose guidelines to follow. This is no longer Saturday morning spin class, but rather a survival of the fittest challenge for me and Dave. Our reward is that we are given the experience that we had hoped for, an opportunity to see outside of the tourist areas of Chiang Mai. We are peering out to a sea of bright green rice fields; gliding past grazing water buffalos and listening to the furious beating of rain splash against teak roofs. As we soak up the beautiful landscape, I am ashamed that I can only think of one thing. I am starving. Our guide’s name is Tun and he is also my saviour at this point. He nods to a sheltered food stop and calls out behind us, “Should we stop for some lunch?” Dave has already turned his bike around and is peddling fast towards the restaurant. I am thankful at this point, that I share the appetite of a 6”4 Italian man.
Settling in, we are greeted with friendly chuckles as we rip off our ponchos. The paper thin plastic that we were wearing has done nothing to save us from the pouring rain. Our guide is happy to hear the following; we are not vegetarians and we will try anything. I am certain that Tun is clairvoyant as his selections restore us from the cold, exhausting ride. Like old friends, we share a heaping bowl of spicy, stewed beef soup; crispy pork on stir fried vegetables with chillies; morning glory in oyster sauce and another round of pork on bitter greens. (The second helping of pork is at my behest) Near the end of our meal, Tun asks me what the difference is between Canadian and Thai restaurants. I slow down my chewing to a pensive grind and measure my answer carefully. There are obvious differences that I can note; outdoor health regulations; the shower in the “public restroom”; cats under the table; the lack of proper seating for anyone over 5”7 (poor, poor Dave). These musings are redundant and an obvious insult to the delicious meal we have just been served. I swallow with intent and answer simply, “Food this fast and this cheap in Canada would not be this good.” Today lunch for three people has cost us less than $6. We are not at a truck stop and this is not a franchised chain. This is a simple, family operation in which locals stop in droves to take away quick and easy meals. We are not “slumming it” either. Our guide has taken us through one of the prettiest neighbourhoods of Chiang Mai. We are witness to what the local Thai middleclass do for a Thursday lunch. It is one of the best meals that we will have during our time in the city but there is one more point that I do not share as we suit up and speed towards the city centre.
Thailand, for all its beautiful food, refreshing fruit shakes and dirt cheap beers, is a country that consumes very little wine. What I have witnessed for selections, have obviously been imported to supply the large flocks of tourists that visit this country every year. Flashy Phuket and metropolitan Bangkok offered big names and high price tags, but for the most part selections in the supermarket are limited to second labels from countries with huge wine lakes. (Read Chile, Australia and Southern Italy) Thailand also produces wine. That is all that I will say on that subject.
When I first embarked on this adventure, my intent was to take a real holiday, which included a break from thinking about wine. But since I`ve left, wine is a constant thought on my mind. How can it not? At the beginning of every delicious meal my first instinct is to reach for my wine glass. I long for Clare Valley Riesling to pair with the chilli and lime dressing on my Som Tum. My Panang curry demands a doughy Santa Cruz Chardonnay and the savoury soup I had for lunch was begging for Cru Beaujolais. I am gluttonous in this country and it has spun my palate into overdrive. I salivate over spiced nuts, smoke rising from outdoor barbeques, steaming broths poured into plastic take away bags. In a country that has little love for wine, I am inspired and slowly rejuvenating my own stagnant passion. I rethought the influences of herbs, heat and texture. And while I am in no rush to end my vacation, I feel that I will leave here with much to bring back home.
My conclusion after today is that you can take the sommelier out of Canada but you can`t take the sommelier out of girl. It only took 20 km in the pouring rain and a bowl of soup to get there. Now watch out for that car.