Chill Chiang Mai.

We had a lovely, relaxing month in Chiang Mai, a pleasant surprise considering that we almost didn’t go to Thailand at all. I was ultra-apprehensive about whether Sam and I, with our allergies, could survive a month in the land of peanuts. I had been warned that peanut oil is widely used, and that cooks often don’t even know it’s peanut oil but will tell you it’s chilli oil or garlic oil, not realizing that the carrier oil for these spices is peanut. I was fanatical about this in Singapore and Hong Kong, and I knew that avoiding an allergy situation in Thailand would be the biggest challenge of our trip. This was confirmed for me almost immediately when we decided to ask some questions at an Israeli restaurant just around the corner from our Airbnb. We spoke to the owner who told us in perfect English that they use only olive oil, of course, in Israeli cooking: when pressed, though, he admitted that, yes, anything deep-fried or pan-fried would probably be cooked using peanut oil, with the olive oil used mainly as a garnish for cold dishes. The upshot was that, just as in all of our Asian destinations, restaurant food was a spectator sport for the two of us. Luckily Airbnb has completely changed the way that people with food allergies can travel, so every day Patrick sampled some new, delicious street food dish while I cooked for Sam and myself. We had a really deluxe apartment with a fully equipped kitchen, so it was no hardship to whip up yet another batch of “that delicious chicken, Mommy” with some vegetables and rice, and I was able to prepare snacks and lunches to carry along when we ventured out. Patrick almost always came back from his foraging with a delicious roti (similar to a crêpe) or a fresh lime juice for us, which kept us from feeling deprived.

We loved our time in Chiang Mai. We used the gym daily, had frequent massages, ate well, slept well, and made a real dent in my work / Sam’s workbooks. We did explore the city in a low-key way, but our enjoyment correlates strongly with the lack of pressure we felt to see or do anything in particular. Chiang Mai is all about chilling out, but here are a few notable things that stand out in our month of just enjoying life:

5. The Night Bazaar. I chose an Airbnb just a few minutes’ walk from Chiang Mai’s main tourist market, which, unlike the Saturday Night Market, isn’t flanked by questionable massage parlours, flocks of “bar girls” (aka hookers) lingering outside unsavoury clubs, and overweight middle-aged white guys with a gross gleam in their eyes. We attempted the Saturday market once and weren’t keen on the experience for these and other reasons, but the Night Bazaar was a regular feature of our daily life. Patrick often found something delicious to eat there, and virtually all of our souvenir shopping was conducted among the well-stocked, well-priced, and pleasant stalls. We even tried a fish pedicure, which everyone should have once in their lives even though we later learned that a Thai foot scrub (by a human) is a much better way to get soft feet.

4. Art in Paradise. Just up the street from our Airbnb was a totally touristy museum of “3D art,” something that we had noticed in Singapore and snubbed. We gave it a chance here and were surprised to be so thoroughly charmed. Fine art this is not, but the chance to engage with paintings by becoming a part of them was just right for Sam’s age and interests. We took tons of pictures and had a complete ball for hours. Highly recommended.

3. Food, temples, shopping malls, etc. Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city, and Northern Thailand’s main one, so it has urban amenities that would be hard to find on one of the paradise islands but also a much quieter pace than frenetic Bangkok. We loved hopping in a tuk tuk and exploring the malls, catching a movie in a deluxe cinema, or browsing in the fantastic art store where Sam had a hard time spending the Christmas money he’d received for art supplies from Erica and Mark: everything was laughably inexpensive in Chiang Mai. Sam really took to painting during this month and also experimented with gold leaf embellishments just like his idol, Patrick Guyton, further inspired by all the gold-encrusted Buddhas and temple art we saw. There are dozens and dozens of elaborate temples throughout Chiang Mai and it’s easy to pop into one or six en route to somewhere else, as we did several times. At one temple Sam was even invited to add some gold leaf to a Buddha, a nice interactive moment for him.

2. Ree at Chai Massage. Thai massages are very inexpensive in Chiang Mai (about $16 Canadian for two hours) and widely available: in our first week we tried 7 different places within a short walk of our Airbnb, but then we met Ree. All of the massages we had were good, some were great, but Ree’s were phenomenal so we made a standing appointment with her for the rest of our trip. If you’ve never had a Thai massage before, it resembles physiotherapy more than the oil massages typical in North America: wearing soft, loose pyjamas, you allow yourself to be bent into various pretzel shapes while being prodded with fingers, knuckles, elbows, forearms, and sometimes even the masseuse’s feet. It’s arduous for both the masseur and the massee, but now that we’ve experienced it we’d be hard pressed (kind of a pun) to go back to traditional oil massages. I usually had one hour of Thai and one hour of reflexology foot massage, which was absolute heaven, and Patrick often combined his Thai massage with a sports massage using Thai balm, which really does seem to be magical for tight muscles. I’m sure that if half of our positive experience in Chiang Mai is down to our choice of Airbnb, the other half is entirely due to the therapeutic effect of these regular massages. We miss Ree a lot!

1. Flight of the Gibbon. The highlight not only of Chiang Mai but also of our entire sabbatical so far, this ziplining adventure in the Thai rainforest almost didn’t happen. Patrick was careful not to give me all the details, but even labouring under the very, very incorrect impression that it would be a quick zip across the treeline I was beyond reluctant. I need to be convinced that a risk is worth the benefit in order to take it, which is why I once booked us a holiday on a Fijian island reachable only via an 8-seater propeller plane but refuse to let Sam play in a McDonald’s fun zone aka petri dish. Zipping along a metal cable in a developing country to see some scenery seemed pointless, but I was SO WRONG. When the van picked us up at 9 am I still had no real idea what we were in for, but at least I had checked out the safety features and felt that the company took suitable precautions. Imagine my shock and horror when the safety briefing made it clear that the ziplining would last 3 hours and take us across not one but 16 ziplines, one of them 800m long and two completely vertical. I could have cried at that point, but Sam was beyond thrilled that we were all doing this together so I put on a brave face and carried on. I went into a kind of black hole of sheer terror during the first couple ziplines and don’t remember them at all, but after that I was able to open my eyes and truly enjoy the spectacular views from the treetops. Sam completely loved the entire experience and wasn’t the least bit scared, and Patrick only balked once when we were supposed to jump off a platform bungee-style and then fly like Superman to the next platform. It was all extremely safe and professional, and I always felt that every precaution had been taken to keep us from harm. After the ziplining there was an apparently delicious village-style meal (just rice and fruit for Sam and me), and then the chance to hike up to the top of a gorgeous waterfall nearby. Please, if you are ever in Chiang Mai you must go to Flight of the Gibbon…and then make an appointment with Ree afterwards to help flush out the stress toxins.

We were so sad to leave our idyllic life in Chiang Mai, but I knew that I’d booked us another great-looking Airbnb on the Malaysian island of Penang, famous for its great food, gorgeous scenery, and perfect weather. All of that would turn out to be true, and the many charms of Penang almost made us forget about Ree. Instead of daily massages, Patrick signed up for an initiation to Crossfit and I became a Zumba devotee…but I’ll tell you all about that in my next blog post.

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