Every year from late February, some farmers in Southeast Asia use the ‘slash and burn’ method of farming to clear their land and get it ready for planting. The smoke that this creates does terrible things for the air quality in some areas, particularly the valleys of Northern Thailand, and we’d read that the whole region was best avoided until the first rains around June. We needed to pass through on our way south, so planned to do so as quickly as possible with only two things on the agenda: go to the White Temple in Chiang Rai and try Khao Soi, one of Northern Thailand’s most iconic dishes.
We crossed from Laos into Thailand bright and early as the border opened, then took a minibus to Chiang Rai, making a beeline for Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple. On the face of it, this is a normal (well, very beautiful) whitewashed temple, covered in shards of mirror that glitter in the light.
But the closer we looked, the stranger things became. For starters, to enter the temple, we had to cross a bridge over a pool of hands reaching up from the depths, which represent unrestrained desire. This is surrounded by a wall of interlinked skeletons, skulls, and more hands, which was really quite creepy.
When we got inside, things got really quite strange. As well as the usual Buddha image and spaces for prayer and reflection, the interior walls were adorned with murals ranging from Hello Kitty and Elvis, to Star Wars, the Matrix and the Twin Towers. No photos are allowed inside, but I managed to sneak one – this is just one very small part of a highly confusing whole.
The project is the brainchild of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist, who is building his creation on the site of an existing temple which had been in a poor state of repair. Apparently he plans for the building work to continue until 2070 and believes that his involvement will grant him immortal life!
⏰ Khao Soi o’Clock
After an early start, we were more than ready for our late lunch, and what a lunch it was! Khao Soi is normally described as yellow noodles in a coconut curry broth, and if I’m honest, I thought it sounded a bit generic and unlikely to be a stand out dish. We headed to Khao Soi Phor Jai and I got totally schooled on my preconceptions – it was utterly delicious. We resolved to try as many versions as we could while we were in the region (and created our very own scoring system while we were at it).
Broth: Combining the perfect spice level (i.e. pretty spicy) with intense coconut, lime and curry flavours, and yet not overpoweringly rich. How did they do it?! A masterpiece. 5/5
Noodles: Yellow as advertised. 4/5
Chicken: Chunks of chicken breast, no complaints. 4/5
Topping: The deep-fried noodles were perched up out of reach of the broth, meaning they remained crunchy for longer. Ingenious. 5/5
Price: 40 baht for a smallish bowl (approximately £1)
We woke up to unseasonal pouring rain, which was a bit of a surprise, but it did mean that the haze cleared gradually during our three-hour bus to Chiang Mai. We couldn’t believe our luck – as far as we understand, blue skies and being able to spend time comfortably outside is pretty much unheard of this time of year.
⏰ Khao Soi o’Clock (again)
Our first stop was of course lunch – in fact, we were so keen that we bailed off early from the Songthaew that was taking us from the bus station to the city centre because we realised we were passing close to a reknowned Khao Soi joint on Halal Street in the Islamic quarter.
Broth: The earthiest of the three we tried, with definite leanings towards an Indian curry flavour. 4/5
Chicken: An absolute stand out – anyone who can make chicken breast this succulent and melt-in-the-mouth has my utmost respect! It had its own delicious flavour distinct from the broth, too. 5/5
Topping: Tasty but soggy 😞 3/5
Price: 60 baht for a smallish bowl (approximately £1.50)
DIY food tour
We spent the afternoon exploring some of Chiang Mai’s old town before tackling the important issue of dinner. For this, we wrote a list of foods we wanted to try and got going on a DIY night market food tour. And by this, I don’t mean that we toured multiple stalls in one night market to find our dinner, but actually that we toured multiple night markets! We are nothing if not dedicated…
Our first stop was to try Sai ua, often known as Chiang Mai sausage. Much like the utterly delicious Lao version of the previous week, this was a highly seasoned sausage of pork, galangal, chilli, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. It packed a punch and was the perfect starter!
Our second stop was for Kôw kăh mŏo at the famous stall of ‘Cowboy Hat Lady’ – we’d read that you couldn’t miss her, and it was true! Once we’d navigated the baffling ordering process, she was serving up slow cooked pork leg over rice, with a boiled egg and pickled greens. It might not look like much, but it was really tasty – and we always enjoy discovering dishes that subvert our ideas about a country’s cuisine.
Our final stop was for pudding, and we just had to go for the Thai street food classic of mango sticky rice – glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk and palm sugar, topped with freshly sliced mango, yellow mung beans and more coconut milk. Neither of us had ever tried this before, mostly because we’d only seen it for sale in quite touristy spots and that had been enough to put us off on the authenticity front. But we didn’t want to leave Thailand without giving it a go, and once we’d tried it we both decided that we didn’t really care whether it was a traditional dish (it is), because it was SO delicious!
That concluded our DIY food tour for the evening as we were both stuffed, so we rolled on home to bed.
⏰ Khao Soi o’Clock (yet again)
We had just enough room for one final Khao Soi the following lunchtime, so we cycled out of the city to Khao Soi Samerjai, another highly rated local joint.
Broth: The spiciest of the three we tried, but still super coconutty. 4/5
Noodles: I think these ones were home made, so bonus points here. 5/5
Chicken: I’ll just say that eating chicken on the bone using chopsticks over a big bowl of broth didn’t end that well for either of our t-shirts. 3/5
Topping: Mostly crispy. 4/5
Price: 70 baht for a large bowl (approximately £1.75)
🏆 So the winner is… Khao Soi Phor Jai (in Chiang Rai). Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that we preferred the first one we tried – it was a bit of a revelation. But more importantly, we met our goal of eating so much Khao Soi that we’re now thoroughly sick of it and will happily wait until we next go to Northern Thailand to eat it again – result!
After this culinary extravaganza, it was time to hop onto a sleeper train to take us south to Bangkok (again).