Hello Chiang Mai
As I exit the plane at Chiang Mai International Airport, the first thing I notice before stepping onto the shuttle to the terminal is the mountain. It’s lush, green, and very close. I’m enamored by its beauty, and I instantly feel like this was a good choice for me to attend my certification class instead of Bangkok. I will learn later that its name is Doi Suthep (Suthep Mountain).
After collecting my luggage from the baggage carousel, I walk out into the larger lobby where a line of taxi drivers are standing with signs bearing the names of passengers whom they are to pick up. I am searching for my own name when I bump into another American, a woman named Sandy. She mentions that she is there for a teaching certification course.
“CELTA??”, I ask in mild wonderment.
“Yes”, she replies. “How did you know?”
I explain that I’m also here for the same course. We will be classmates, and I am looking forward to more conversation during our shared taxi ride to the school campus. But that is not to be. The school has sent two separate drivers to pick us up, even though we have arrived at the same time.
My driver shows up and leads me to a covered, red pickup truck, called a “songthaew”, with two rows of bench seating in the bed and an open doorway in the rear. Since I am the only passenger, having paid in advance the sum of 450 Thai Baht, I toss my bags in the back and go to open the passenger side front door to ride in relative comfort.
“No, no”, says the driver, waving me off. “You sit back.”
What the fuck? Now I’m pissed. I don’t like being taken advantage of, even as a foreigner. I had already had my share of dishonest taxi and tuktuk drivers in Bangkok, and I wasn’t above telling them to go fuck themselves when they refused to use the meter as I opted to be picked up by an Uber driver right in front of them.
I’m not angry with the driver as he is mostly just doing his job. I am a bit upset with the local school administrator, Tommy, who evidently has relatives or friends he splits the fares with and that’s why they sent two trucks to pick up two people who arrived at the airport simultaneously.
Plus, I am made to sit in the back where I really can’t see the surroundings passing by. As I perch on the less-than-comfortable padded bench while rocking back and forth with the truck’s movement, I take out my phone and look up how much an Uber would have cost me. Less than 200 baht. I will later take the opportunity to express my mild displeasure to Tommy. He will simply smile and shrug his shoulders.
Twenty minutes from the airport, I am dropped off at the campus, which is stunningly beautiful. It’s set in the middle of rice fields and a stand of trees. I can hear rooster calls from over the concrete privacy wall, and a rather weird lowing sound, somewhere between a “moo” and a “quack”. I will find out later that it is a water buffalo.
I walk across an arched wooden bridge spanning a small stream that empties into a pond with ducks and geese on my way to the two-story main building. There I find a covered patio with tables and chairs adjacent to what looks like a library filled with books and computer stations. Next to that is the reception counter. I’m greeted by two young ladies who take my passport to make a copy. I notice that Sandy has yet to arrive. Maybe my driver took a shortcut?
My passport recovered, I am directed to follow an older woman in a housekeeping uniform to the next building, another two-story affair. We walk a meandering path through a garden area to my room, number 106, just past the staircase.
I remove my shoes at the entrance, following the example of the housekeeper, then step into a gorgeous room with a canopy bed, writing desk, wardrobe, and a long counter holding a water kettle. The large sliding glass door in front of me opens up to a small private patio facing a large, inviting, aquamarine swimming pool. This is going to be a nice stay.
After admiring the room, I begin unpacking and hanging up my clothes, including the brand-new dress pants and long-sleeved button-down shirt that I purchased from a tailor shop on Sukhumvit Road two days prior. It is one of the nicest shirts I have ever owned. There are four more being delivered by mail to the school, as the tailor told me he couldn’t get them all finished in time for my departure to Chiang Mai. I also have five new neckties that he gave me with my purchase.
The office staff informed me earlier that if I want to go to the store to pick up any needed items, there is a shuttle leaving at 5:30pm to take any who are interested to the nearby shopping center. I take stock of what I have, and think that it may be a good idea to have some snacks or emergency rations for late-night study periods. And some stationery – pens, pencils, notepads – would be a good idea.
I meet a few of my classmates in the parking area, including Sandy, who has since arrived. Another red truck arrives to pick us up and takes us to a shopping mall that is close to the airport. I wander around, trying to find the items I need.
Malls are laid out quite differently here than back in the US. I have long believed that malls have maybe ten basic stores, duplicated and given different names. Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Aéropostale – all the same shit with different labels attached. Shoe stores sell the same basic products as the others. Even the anchor stores, which used to be Sears and JCPenney, but now tend to be Macy’s and Nordstrom, don’t really offer anything different.
But in the States, those shops aren’t neighbors. Here, all of the cell phone stores are right next to each other, as are the banks, the shoe stores, etc. I guess it’s convenient for consumers who want price comparisons within easy distance, but it’s disorienting to me. Later, I will discover the cultural reason for this. But right now, where the hell is the stationery shop?
After finding the store on the fourth floor of the mall, just below all of the dine-in restaurants, I bump into one of my new classmates, Matthew, another American who is teaching in South Korea. He informs me that he located a great food court nearby. I still have ramen noodles on my shopping list, so I will find it later. I need the grocery store.
Another classmate, not American, excitedly tells me she discovered a McDonald’s on the bottom floor, and I smile wanly, hiding my revulsion. I haven’t frequented McDonald’s in years, since escaping the suburbs and discovering the variety of authentic and inexpensive ethnic food available in Chicago.
I do, however, need to go to the lower floors where there is a grocery store. There I purchase a 24-pack of Mama brand ramen noodles. My Vietnamese girlfriend had told me these were the best. I still value her advice, even though we ended our relationship shortly after she returned to California.
Trying to maintain our bond while she was in Orange County and I was in Chicago, a distance of roughly 2,000 miles and three time zones, had been hard enough. Quadrupling that separation gap across the Pacific Ocean and International Date Line would make it beyond difficult. The decision was not painless for either of us, and right now we are in a period of silence, though in the future we will be on friendly terms.
Now I am hungry. Through the glass banisters I catch sight of another food court on the bottom floor, and I head down the escalator, packages in hand. There’s the aforementioned McDonald’s, right across from a large cylindrical aquarium in the center of the lower atrium. I stop to marvel at the variety and sizes of the swimmy creatures.
The clown hamburger shop notwithstanding, this is not a food court I recognize. There is no Orange Julius, nor a Sbarro. Rather this is all local Thai food. Instead of shops with individual entries and counters, this is laid out more like a farmer’s market.
As I drift around between the kiosks trying to find some identifiable fare, I’m stumped. Most of the language is in Thai, not English, and I notice that there is a meager number of foreigners. I take this as a good omen, however. This food is going to be legit.
One particular stall catches my attention. Patrons are sitting on low stools along the counter slurping noodles from bowls, but this is not ramen. The broth looks creamy, and the noodles are different. I notice that most of the diners also have a whole chicken leg sitting amongst the noodles in their bowls.
Whatever it is, it smells divine. I step up to the lady behind the counter and in my best Thai language ability I use my index finger to point at the bowl of the customer to my left, then hold it upright, indicating that I’ll have what she’s having. One.
The woman smiles before dipping a ladle into the steaming pot before her and transferring the soup to a clean bowl. She then adds a generous portion of yellow noodles, and tops it off with a chicken leg and some type of crispy fried noodles that remind me of dry chow mein.
Handing it to me with chopsticks and an Asian-style soup spoon, she uses her free hand to draw my attention to a selection of toppings I can add to my entree. They include a dark green, pickled cabbage of some sort, chopped shallots, lime slices, and red chili flakes. I add a portion of everything except the chili flakes. I do not know how spicy this is on its own.
It is a bit spicy, but exquisitely delicious. I ignore the heat that is building with each bite and savor the rich broth which I ascertain includes coconut milk. The noodles are perfect, almost al dente, and the pickled cabbage and lime add just the right touch of piquancy to offset the sweetness of the coconut milk. The chicken leg is my least favorite part of the dish, not because it doesn’t taste good, but because I’m unused to cutting meat off the bone with a spoon and chopsticks.
Shortly after discovering this wonderful dish, the name of which I still don’t know, I find the rest of the group gathered at the designated spot to meet our red truck for the return to the school. Upon our arrival, we meet the rest of the students who are staying on campus and have checked into their rooms in preparation for tomorrow’s start of class. Sitting around the dining area in the cooler evening air, we introduce ourselves and eagerly, though nervously speculate on what awaits us in the classroom.
Eventually, one-by-one, we retire to our individual rooms to turn in for the night. Finding myself a bit peckish, I heat some water in the kettle and pour it over a bowl filled with the dry Mama ramen along with the seasoning packet.