Thailand Part 2: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and The Golden Triangle
Have you ever lived in a moment that almost made you cry, for its beauty and, perhaps even more so, for the realization that you’d never experience it the same way again?
That’s how I felt sipping this pitcher of red oolong tea. We were in a remote area of in northeast Thailand, in a tiny town that was little more than a single road with a market. Tea was the year-round cash crop, and the steep sides of the mountains were lined with orderly rows of tea plants.
Like the rest of northern Thailand, the tea leaf fields were verdant green. They also smelled heavenly. I’d never smelled fresh tea leaves before, certainly not in collective like this, and I couldn’t breathe deeply enough. I’ve never craved a scent before, but now as I look back, I miss it. The tea leaf plants perfumed the mountain air with the most fresh, relaxing smell. I wish I could have bottled it up and taken it home with me.
I’m sure this village was exactly like dozens of others all dotting the same mountain range, but just that night, when Ben and I had slipped our local guide, walked down the mountain road away from our lodging, and stumbled upon this little tea store, it felt like we were having a private experience all our own.
It was also Thanksgiving. Or at least it was for us. We were 13 hours ahead of both of our families, and technically, they hadn’t woken up yet. Here we were, in our own private tea shop, with our own private holiday.
This moment—these precious 30 minutes with a pitcher of tea while I begged the sun not to set—was not only one of my favorites of the trip; it was one of the most special of my life. Unlike the elephants and the Thai cooking classes (which I also loved and will be telling you about a bit further down the page), this stop wasn’t on our agenda. I couldn’t have planned it if I wanted to.
This is so much of why I travel: the unexpected, unplannable moments that take my breath away, for their beauty, their singularity, or for the company with whom I share them. This Thanksgiving night with the pitcher of tea—this was one of those moments. I knew it as I lived it.
Oh dear. I just wrote you nearly 400 words about a cup of tea. How will we get through this?
Tea. We need more tea. Or wine. Whatever your beverage of choice, pour yourself a cup and get comfy. It’s Thailand Travel, Part II: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the Golden Triangle. There will be elephants! There will be pad Thai! Pull out your virtual passports. We are heading east.
If you crave serious variety in your travel agenda, look no further than Thailand. While the country has a uniting undercurrent (I think I’d call it friendly and spicy?), the cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai and countryside like the tea leaf fields I described above offer completely different experiences.
We started our trip in Bangkok, where our flight touched down at 2:35 a.m. After 30+ hours of traveling, my body had absolutely no idea what was happening. I did, however, immediately recognize that I was very, very happy to be arriving at the point of our trip that I like to refer to as “PINCH ME“: The Peninsula Hotel Bangkok.
If the bamboo-hut and lack-of-plumbing situation I described in last week’s post about hiking in northern Thailand didn’t appeal to you, I suspect our Bangkok hotel stay will. Heck, even if the rustic accommodations DID appeal to you, I still would wager my last forkful of pad Thai that you’d enjoy your stay here tremendously. The hotel’s PR team put together a lovely experience for us, and it was a dream of a way to begin our trip.
The rooms are spacious, comfy, and all offer views of the river and thoughtful extras. Every night, we walked back into our room to a fresh spread of treats that included everything from French madeleines and chocolate fondue to coconut truffles and cookies. I kept asking myself, is this my real life?
The amenities and grounds of the hotel are stunning too. The breakfast buffet included everything I could dream of ordering, from made-to-order omelets, to vanilla bean bread pudding, to a stunning array of tropical fruit, and Ben enjoyed napping off his jetlag at the pool.
The hotel also offers different cultural experiences, including a Thai cooking class that’s held outdoors, right alongside the river.
Leading up to the trip, I had assumed that the best food we would try would be in restaurants, but I was wrong. Our two Thai cooking classes, including the one at The Peninsula, were two of the best meals of the trip. We cooked (and ate) four incredible courses, and even picked some of the herbs we used from The Peninsula’s on-site garden.
Adding to the “pinch me” factor of the Peninsula is its spa, which has its own facility and is positively serene. Ben and I had our own private room with a jacuzzi (<—for real). We were both on clouds after our massages; it was beyond relaxing.
Our final experience at the Peninsula Bangkok was the sunset river cruise. I sipped bubbly and enjoyed views of the city while the hotel’s small river boat jetted along the dark water. The sky around us was lit by a mix of modern buildings and ancient temples. This blend of old and new permeated so much of Bangkok and was fascinating to observe.
Our stay in Bangkok was short, but we did manage to squeeze in a visit to a night market on the outskirts of the city, where we grazed the food stalls. Top bites: fried squid, beef soup, spicy minced duck, banana waffles, coconut egg pudding, fish balls (don’t ask), and fried caterpillars. Or rather, caterpillar. We each ate just one. They tasted like Cheetos, minus the cheese.
We also visited the sparkling Grand Palace (two pictures most directly above), but honestly, it was so miserably hot and humid, this part of the day is a bit of a blur. We snapped a few photos, dragged ourselves aboard a water taxi to the airport, then headed north to…
We had two days in Chiang Mai, a city that has a reputation for a stellar food scene and that I anticipated would be my favorite part of our entire vacation. I was wrong.
Now, do not mistake me. I really enjoyed Chiang Mai, especially our cooking class, but it wasn’t what I expected. Much of the city has become quite touristy, and the old quarter is positively overflowing with cheap bars and the backpackers who keep them in business. I’m happy to see the city doing well, and it’s wonderful for the Thai economy, but I couldn’t help but pick up the vibe that we’d arrived about ten years too late. After a few less-than-stellar restaurant meals, we started wondering why the city had the sterling food reputation that it did.
Then, we took a Thai cooking class at Cooking at Home.
Cooking at Home Thai Cooking School
If you scour restaurants in Thailand looking for the best Thai food of your life, you’re searching the wrong places. We ate A LOT on our trip, and over and over again, the very best meals were the ones prepared by home cooks like Pom and Vasin of Cooking at Home Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai.
Pom and Vasin, the world’s cutest married couple and Thai cooking dynamos, picked us up at our hotel for what turned out to be some of the most enjoyable six hours of my life. We escaped the city crowds and shopped at a small local market near the couple’s home. I was fascinated by the wide array of exotic produce, poultry, tropical fruits, and candies. Even the selection of chilis was enormous! Ben basically had to carry me back to the van so that we could start the cooking lesson on time.
The cooking school is held at couple’s home, in an outdoor area by a lovely field. The setting was serene, the instruction approachable, and the four courses? OH MY. The meal we prepared with Cooking at Home was one of the best of the trip. I am still dreaming about that pad Thai and mango sticky rice.
In addition to offering their culinary skills, Pom and Vasin also offered themselves. We ended up staying an extra hour chatting about Thai culture, the impact of tourism on the country, and all the reasons we both love to cook. By the end of the day, I felt like we had become friends.
Elephants are an integral part of Thai history, culture, and lore. Visiting one of the dozens and dozens of elephant parks around Chiang Mai is a top tourist attraction. Unfortunately, like many natural resources, elephants are commonly exploited and mistreated for monetary gain. If you travel to Thailand and would like to visit elephants, please carefully research the company and elephant park that you decide to visit and, through that visit, financially support.
Ben and I choose to support Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary dedicated to rehabilitating elephants rescued from the logging industry, abusive tour companies, and other harmful practices. We had the opportunity to feed and bathe these beautiful creatures, and to learn about their back-stories too. A few of them had pasts so tragic, I was actually moved to tears.
I know it might sound silly to cry over an elephant, but when you are stroking their warm trunks and looking into those big, sad eyes, it’s hard to feel anything but passion and sympathy for these intelligent, powerful creatures.
From Chiang Mai, we headed north once more to The Golden Triangle, the northern most point of Thailand where three countries—Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos—all intersect.
This area earned a notorious reputation for its role in the opium trade. Deaths, dollars, and eventually solid gold (at one point, gold was the only acceptable currency for opium) have soaked this area over the centuries. Although the opium cultivation is now illegal in Thailand, its borders are not immune to drug passage.
If you do decide to visit the Golden Triangle area, I recommend stopping at the Opium Museum, even for half an hour. Parts are a bit sobering, but it is an important part of the area’s history, even if it is a less flattering one.
In case the first 400 words of this post didn’t cover it, I loved seeing the tea plantations in northern Thailand. We were outside the village of Mae Salong, where sprawling rows of oolong plants sweep entire mountainsides. We enjoyed a tea tasting and peeked inside tea factories, where the leaves are still picked and processed entirely by hand.
We spent the night in this region with a local Thai family, who served us what Ben has declared as, “one of the top 5 meals of my life.” I have to agree. And we made it in this outdoor kitchen! It’s clearly not what you have; it’s how you use it.
The tea fields and Golden Triangle area are an easy stop between the more popular Chiang Mai and hilltribe village hiking, which I describe in detail in this post. While I probably could have skipped the Golden Triangle, our homestay and seeing the tea fields make the trek to the far north worth it.
This is my last post covering Thailand (we’ll be off to Vietnam next!). As always, thank you so much for reading my travel adventures. I love sharing them with you, and I know that I’ll often refer back to this post when I need a little virtual trip back east. I hope my words and the photos took you there with me too, even if just for a moment.
Is anyone else craving pad Thai? Right. Off to refill my tea.
If you’d liked this post, don’t miss the rest of our Thailand and Vietnam adventure!
Thank you to The Peninsula Hotel for offering us a reduced rate and for hosting us for the cooking class. I was under no obligation to write this post, but wanted to include the information because we truly enjoyed our stay. As always, all opinions are my own.
This post contains some affiliate links, which means that I make a small commission off items you purchase at no additional cost to you.
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About Erin Clarke
I’m fearlessly dedicated to making healthy food taste incredible. Wearer of plaid, travel enthusiast, and firmly convinced that sweets and veggies both deserve a place at the table. MORE ABOUT ERIN…
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When James and I made the collective decision to move to New Zealand, we both figured it made the most sense to feed our wanderlust by getting there the long way: backpacking through Southeast Asia. While we decided it was best to not have a set plan for the course of our trip, we chose Bangkok as the starting point as it would allow us to either head north or east along mainland Southeast Asia.
The trip started off beautifully. First of all, I had the entire row of my long-haul flight to myself. I slept most of the twelve hours, waking up randomly to watch a movie, color in my adult coloring book and read. Thanks to the always trustworthy Benadryl, I arrived in Bangkok a bit drowsy yet extremely excited to begin this journey and finally reunite with James.
Bangkok was everything I expected it to be and more. Although its streets are constantly buzzing with energy, the people are relaxed and laid back, which is something I missed severely while living in Korea. We started each day with fresh fruits and juices purchased at Silom Soi 20, an awesome market located down the street from Lub D Hostel Silom. We spent our days wandering the streets of Bangkok, getting lost in the colorful, golden temple-lined streets and eating an abundance delicious street food and fresh fruits.
One of the standout moments of our time in Bangkok was our second day there. We’d met a great German guy in the hostel who’d been living in New Zealand for the past seven months and decided to spend the day together. While trying to make our way to a palace across town by foot, we got a bit lost and happened to stumble upon a local university. We met an American professor who suggested we try the food located in the cafeteria. He told us that although the meals were priced to accommodate a student budget, each of the food stalls inside had to enter a competition in order to sell their food, ensuring us the food was great quality and worth a try.
We got some of the most delicious food for about .75 cents USD each! The experience gave us enough energy to continue our trek in the boiling heat and certainly worked as a reminder to always keep my heart open to new experiences. My overall experience throughout Thailand has been particularly incredible and I can understand why people fall in love with it here as often and as quickly. It’s definitely a stark contrast to the high-stress, busy way of life that I was so used to in Korea. With that said, I’m embracing all of this chilled out, delicious, kind and lovely energy that I’m getting each and every day from locals and travelers alike.
These next few months are going to be an incredible journey, and I’m so lucky to have a happy heart and my best friend at my side through it all. Bangkok, you’re amazing and make my heart want to sing songs.