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I was having a late afternoon tea with the lovely V today (vegan chocolate cake for her and pita with babaganoush for me, the non-sweet toothed party) when she mentioned she’s planning a trip to Barcelona by train. I love overnight train journeys and our conversation reminded me of the fantastic leg of our Thailand trip from Chiang Mai to Bangkok by train.

I’m already well-disposed to sleeper trains: the whole thing evokes either the romance of private cabins (think North by Northwest) or the communal fun of berths with curtains (Some Like it Hot). This journey was more along the Some Like it Hot lines and it was completely splendid. First of all, Thai trains are simultaneously old-fashioned and wonderful. The ceiling fans might or might not work and you’ll be lucky to have a/c but everything is comfortable and passengers are incredibly well looked after. Someone cleaned the floor at least three times during our journey and staff pass up and down the aisles constantly selling drinks. But the best part was when they made our beds for us. When you signalled a desire to sleep, someone would appear and, Transformers-style, turn your four-seater table set up into cosy bunk beds with curtains. I don’t know how they did it, it was so fast. The table was folded into the floor. A mattress came out of the wall. Linens appeared from nowhere. It was awesome.

But before we went to bed, there was dinner to consider. I actually think the food on the Thai rail system was some of the best I ate, possibly because it wasn’t aimed at tourists. We did have to combat the farang menu situation – the Thai and English language menus were different, naturally – but once we got the Thai menu translated, we picked from a simple selection of curries and stir fries. I ordered something like pad krapow with chicken and it was so good. It’s hard to imagine that something in a little airline food tray could ever be good, much less something you order on a train. (British train food makes me shudder.) But it was.

It was full of green peppercorns, crunchy long beans and Thai basil, and it came with a side dish of chopped chilies in fish sauce and vinegar. I know it looks a bit oily but it was a nice slick of good chili oil, and the overall effect wasn’t at all fatty.

Sadly, some of my travel companions really couldn’t tolerate any level of spiciness and I ended up eating some of their food too. (Sadly for them, but obviously I was completely happy to be trying more dishes.) I think I had the best night’s sleep of the whole trip on that train. The rhythm and sound of its repetitive movements, plus the delicious food and cosy berths must have lulled me into a state of complete relaxation. Hmm, perhaps time to think about some more train-based travel..

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I suspect that Chiang Mai is a city that reveals itself only very reluctantly to the outsider. On the surface it’s all flash bang tourist frontages offering elephant tours or jewellery or wifi and pizza, arbitrarily mixed with motorcycle repair shops and building projects. Since the old town is spread out over a mile square, it’s a messy and daunting prospect for the pedestrian. Although I have found a few delights on my own, the Lemurs have also done very well on recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers. For our last dinner, we went to Huen Phen restaurant, recommended by Naomi as one place that solves the Thai menu paradox. What’s the menu paradox? If a menu is in Thai we can’t read it and hence can’t really order the delicious food within. But if the menu is in English, we can read it but the food will also be translated, dumbed down to western palates. Catch 22. Huen Phen, however, has an English menu but still serves authentic Northern Thai dishes. Read the rest of this entry »

So far, I haven’t had the best luck with street food unless it’s been a very detailed recommendation from a trusted source. Not that I’ve eaten anything unpleasant – just not life-alteringly wonderful. I’ve been waiting for that moment of foodie discovery, the chow hound’s Holy Grail of discovering a totally new and amazing source of deliciousness. It’s not as easy as it looks, here in a Thailand full of tourist traps, fruit shakes and ho hum pad thai. On my last day in Chiang Mai, I went for a walk on my own, across the river from the main city centre to check out a neighbourhood reputed to have quiet leafy streets. Yeah, right. Quiet and leafy in Thai terms translates to balancing on the 30 cm between main road and concrete wall as motorbikes and vans hurtle past you at a rate of knots. Maybe I never found the right turning and the pretty streets were hidden just a block away. There’s a lot in this city that you’ll never find unless someone takes you there. Either way, I had had enough and decided to make my way back to the hotel when, right on cue, I noticed something rather interesting going on across the street. Read the rest of this entry »

If you listened to the more cautious advice on eating in Southeast Asia, you would eat only cooked food, only hot food, only food prepared in front of you, only food in proper restaurants, no raw vegetables or non-peeling fruit, and definitely nothing you find down an alley. Food safety is an important thing and I definitely don’t want to catch hepatitis or food poisoning while I’m on holiday, but the problem is that if you followed all of these rules, you would basically eat nothing interesting in Thailand or Vietnam. So, I am breaking these rules one by one and instead following the advice of food bloggers like Eating Asia who know a lot about street food and balance culinary adventure with food sense. I’m eating street food at busy stalls, where I can see from the local clientele that standards are high. I’m choosing stalls with a lot of product and hence a lot of turnover – nothing is sitting for too long when a vendor is popular. I’m trying to go at busy times – kanom jeen or jook at breakfast, somtam at lunch, grilled meats early in the evening market hours. You can tell when food looks forlorn, stale, or, in one horrifying case, covered in bees. Really, it wasn’t a major piece of deductive reasoning to decide that bee-covered fruit is not the healthy way to go.
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Well, my pretties, I’ve finally escaped from farang food! After I met Naomi Duguid in London, we kept in touch and arranged to meet up at the Haw morning vegetable market in Chiang Mai. We had had a lovely time in East London talking about everything from Naomi’s travels in Burma to film, philosophy and Iranian gender politics and so I was super pleased to have the chance to meet up again. This time, though, we’d have a proper food market to visit and we’d be on Naomi’s home turf, as it were. She didn’t have much time to spare as she was actually catching a plane later in the morning – I know, right, how generous to meet up and show us the market when she was on such a tight schedule – but she packed in an intensive education in a brief space of time. In between catching up with all of our lives this autumn, Naomi explained many of the market’s  treasures and introduced me to what may be my new favourite breakfast dish. Read the rest of this entry »

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