Thursday, 26 May 2016

chiang mai: dara vietnamese restaurant, a joyful eating experience


Dara Vietnamese Restaurant, also referred to as Dara Vietnam Food.

So, what might possibly be our most favourite restaurant in Chiang Mai isn't actually a Thai restaurant. It's Dara Vietnam Food, a charming Vietnamese restaurant just outside the Chiang Mai old city square. Dara was a recommendation from my parents, who visited Chiang Mai before we did. Their driver took them there, and they loved it! In turn, they raved to me about the food, and I just knew I had to go there. Delicious things, plus the opportunity to retrace a few of my parents' footsteps in a foreign country? Awesome!

Dara looks fairly unassuming from the outside - if you weren't looking for it, you might go right past if you weren't paying attention, but walk in and you'll be delighted - at least, we were: a lovely wooden interior, warm tones, it just all felt very comfortable.

I settled in with a stimulating iced ginger tea, while Simon had a Vietnamese coffee.

Iced ginger tea at Dara Vietnamese Restaurant (15 baht). Simon's Vietnamese coffee, not shown, was 25 baht.

We partook in a Vietnamese do-it-yourself dish with little square rice paper wrappers, fresh herbs, homemade meatballs, assorted diced vegetables, and a peanut dipping sauce. We softened the rice paper squares in the bowl of water provided, then placed a bit of everything onto each square before wrapping it up into a tiny parcel and popping it into our mouths. It was fun!

Do-it-yourself Vietnamese rice paper rolls (goi cuon) - or in this case, more like Vietnamese rice paper parcels (100 baht).

We also had some rustic-style banh hoi - rice vermicelli bundles with grilled pork ribs and spring onion oil dipping sauce.

Bun hoy (more typically spelled banh hoi) at Dara Vietnam Food (40 baht).

We enjoyed our first meal at Dara so much that we returned for round two. Due to the abundance of food stalls, cafes, and restaurants in Chiang Mai, we rarely visited any eatery more than once - this is testament to how much we liked it here.

Also, also, did I mention that there is an adorable cat at Dara?

The first time, when we dined indoors, Dara cat hung out with us indoors. The second time, we decided to enjoy the fresh air in the courtyard area at the back, so of course, Dara cat hung out with us outdoors. HAPPINESS. We love Dara cat. Dara cat loves us. Life is beautiful.

The kitty at Dara Vietnamese Restaurant is super sweet! <3

But I assure you that we didn't return just for the cat. It's definitely for the food and drinks, too!

Unfortunately, the second time around I didn't jot down any notes, and given this was so long ago, now we play the guessing game. Is this an iced ginger tea, or an iced bael tea? Or something else entirely? Whatever it is, doesn't it look wonderfully refreshing?

Another iced drink - possibly iced ginger tea again, but could also be iced bael tea or something else.

At least with this dish, I know what it is for sure, it's so easy to identify: a Vietnamese pancake! One of Simon's favourite dishes. As with our first meal, glorious fresh herbs make an appearance again, so verdant and abundant.

Banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake) at Dara Vietnam Food.

And here's what the perfectly-cooked pancake filling looks like. Absolutely luscious.

The scrumptious filling inside the Vietnamese pancake.

We had rice paper rolls again, but this time, instead of the DIY version, we went for the chef-prepared version!

Vietnamese rice paper rolls / summer rolls / salad rolls at Dara Vietnamese Restaurant.

Finally, this dish. I'll be honest and say I really cannot remember what this is. Clearly it's some kind of deep-fried snack. Vegetable fritters? Fish cakes? Shrimp cakes? I don't know. But I'm sure it was excellent, because I certainly don't remember not relishing any dish we had at Dara. Everything here was splendid.

What do you think this is? Vegetable fritters, fish cakes, or shrimp cakes?

Needless to say, if we ever return to Chiang Mai (and I sincerely hope we do!), Dara will be on our itinerary again, for sure. Both our visits here were just so satisfying. Thanks, mum and dad, for the recommendation!

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Sunday, 22 May 2016

chiang mai day trip: to lamphun for longans

Dipterocarpus Alatus - the majestic rubber trees that line the route from Chiang Mai to Lamphun.

Just a short and sweet travel post today, about our day trip from Chiang Mai to Lamphun. After several days in Chiang Mai we thought it would be interesting to experience a change in scenery. Lamphun is one of Thailand's oldest towns, it seemed charmingly quaint from what I read on the internet, it is known for its tasty longans, and it is pretty close to Chiang Mai - less than an hour away on a scooter. So, Lamphun it was.

The journey there was quite lovely in parts, particularly this stretch pictured above - flanked by gorgeous rubber trees, we felt a little thrill as we zoomed down the road - which wasn't particularly wide, but felt so fresh and spacious - delighting in the greenery, the small town feel, the morning breeze in our faces.

I will confess that we didn't really do much research on Lamphun, so when we got there, we just wandered around aimlessly. This indoor bazaar caught my eye, and in we went.

The OTOP indoor market/bazaar in Lamphun.

We noticed that many of the stalls had the "OTOP" sign on them - this stands for "One Tambon One Product", a program that encourages the marketing of local products of each sub-district in Thailand.

I didn't end up seeing any fresh longans while we were in Lamphun, but here, I purchased dried longans and candied dried pomelo peel - such delicious snacks! I also couldn't resist getting some longan incense sticks - the incense is made from dried, finely-ground longan shells, and I thought that was such a clever way of using the part of the fruit that is usually discarded.

The stalls inside Lamphun's OTOP shopping centre.

We also meandered onto some temple grounds. And ate ice cream. You know you're a food blogger when you only have a picture of the ice cream in focus while the pretty temples are relegated to blurry background material. But not even a diligent food blogger, because I don't remember what flavour of ice cream this was. Given the pale green colour, though, I'm thinking that it is most likely pandan ice cream.

Ice cream and temples in Lamphun. I think the temple is Wat Phra That Hariphunchai.

As I write this post, the internet tells me that there are a few more temple compounds in Lamphun, some that are quite ancient and intriguing. Due to the under-researched, unstructured nature of our day trip (or, let's make it sound better by saying it was casual and spontaneous!), we did not visit those while we were there, but if we ever find ourselves in Lamphun again, I'll make sure we explore the area more thoroughly. We did have a relaxed, leisurely time sauntering around the town, though, so even if we missed out on some significant historical sites and really didn't do a whole lot, it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon!

Young monks in Lamphun.

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Monday, 16 May 2016

chiang mai: from night bazaar to sunday night market

Adorable doglet hanging out at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

For our very first night in Chiang Mai, we checked out the Night Bazaar. It's open every evening, and I think this is one of the setups that makes the city such a fun place to be - for those of us who don't frequent bars and nightclubs, it's great to have an alternative option, and Simon and I love markets!

The night had barely begun when we fell in love with the most adorable little dog just chilling out on a big green garbage bin. We devoted several minutes of our time to dog-patting, it was the sweetest thing - so sweet and docile and quiet, no hint of small dog syndrome in this one!

A fruit shake stall at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

There is no shortage of stalls selling freshly blended fruit shakes in Chiang Mai. We kicked things off with a passion fruit shake for 40 baht.

Passionfruit shake at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

We also grabbed some zingy herb sausage for 50 baht...

Chiang Mai herb sausage at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

And a very spicy green papaya salad for 40 baht... (It doesn't look spicy, but trust me, it was!)

Som tum (green papaya salad) at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

As well as some noodle roll thing for 30 baht...

Noodle roll at Chiang Mai Night Bazaar.

Then plonked ourselves down in front of the open stage area at Kalare Night Bazaar, where there were plenty of tables and chairs around for those who want to enjoy their food while partaking in free cultural shows in a convivial atmosphere. All in all, we had a very nice evening!

Musical performances at Kalare Night Bazaar.

So the above happened day one in our North Thailand trip. Fast forward to day nineteen, and we were checking out the night market scene in Chiang Mai again, this time at the Sunday Walking Street Market.

Noodle stall at Chiang Mai's Sunday Walking Street Night Market.

Our main meal this time around consisted of two small bowls of noodles for 35 baht each - noodles in green curry sauce, and khao soi, which we have been eating quite often in the Northern Thailand region (see here and here). Khao soi is also noodles in a curry sauce which seems to be of either the red or yellow curry variety, plus it is typically served with a lime wedge and crunchy noodles on top.

Khao soi from the noodle stall.

That wasn't enough, of course, so we supplemented with various snacks. Such as grilled bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms, which we have previously enjoyed in Pai - three bundles for 50 baht.

Bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms at the Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market.

For once, we went past a fruit shake/smoothie stall without purchasing anything...

A smoothie stall at the Sunday Market.

But we did stop at the juice stall, where I selected a guava juice for 10 baht, while Simon went for a passionfruit-infused beetroot juice for 15 baht.

A juice stall at the Sunday Market.

I kind of regret not trying the gac juice, as gac fruits look so intriguing!

Gac fruit at the markets.

We also splurged on some fancy ice cream on sticks, which cost us 35 baht per stick. Behold the delectable "crunchy lime" ice cream, which is basically like a frozen treat version of lime cheesecake. So good.

Crunchy lime popsicle from the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai.

Then there is the "chilli pineapple", which to me, kind of tastes like a refreshing Malaysian-style rojak (a sweet-savoury fruit and vegetable salad).

Chilli pineapple icy pole from the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai.

They also sell arts and crafts at this market...

An art stall at the Sunday Walking Street Market.

As well as shoes, clothing, souvenirs, and other stuff.

This darling dog was not for sale, but I'm sure many of the visitors of the night market would have loved to take it home with them. What a cutie!

Very cute doglet hanging out at the Chiang Mai Walking Street Sunday Night Market.

That's all for today - and hey, we're halfway through the Chiang Mai series! Hope you're having fun reading the posts - three down, three more to go! We'll meet again soon!

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Wednesday, 11 May 2016

chiang mai: free bird cafe, khun nai mae, and catmosphere

If you're only here for the cat pictures, feel free to scroll down.

What do you do in Chiang Mai? Go on a temple-hopping spree? Visit an elephant sanctuary? Do a Thai cooking class? Watch a Thai boxing match? There are so many things a tourist can do here, and despite spending a number of days here, we did none of those things (and I'm kind of thinking, we should go back and do them!). Aside from the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Festival, a large chunk of our time in Chiang Mai was spent wandering around, eating and drinking. Checking out shopping malls and night markets. Watching a movie at the cinema once or twice. Basically, we just chilled out, most of the time.

And Chiang Mai is such a great place for chilling out. There are so many cafes and restaurants here that beckon to you, tempting you to walk in, and to linger.

Free Bird Cafe is such a place. With a gentle and relaxed atmosphere, this Burmese-influenced eatery is a gorgeous not-for-profit venture, in which the proceeds go towards the assistance of Burmese refugees and the hill tribe people in Thailand.

The offerings here are enticing and wholesome. Of course, the prices are on the high side, but hey, you're nourishing your body and supporting a good cause when you dine here, so it's a two-for-one. Coming in at 80 baht each, the smoothies are lush and exciting: the Muay Thai smoothie is a stimulating mix of pineapple, lime, basil and chilli, while Kate's First Aid proffers refreshing comfort with an exquisite blend of pineapple, lemongrass, yoghurt and lime.

Smoothies at Free Bird Cafe - Muay Thai (left) and Kate's First Aid (right).

We also had a Burmese-style ginger-pumpkin curry set (with rice, soup, and sliced raw vegetables) for 130 baht, as well as a choice of three salads for 140 baht. The food was fantastically fresh. If I was a character in a video game, my health meter would be off the charts after consuming this.

Lunch/brunch at Free Bird Cafe - Burmese Shan salads, curry and rice.

Another time, when we were looking for a place to eat after purchasing bus tickets, we stumbled upon a restaurant called Khun Nai Mae Kitchen at the Star Avenue Lifestyle Mall, close to the Chiang Mai bus station. Being somewhat outside the central part of Chiang Mai, Khun Nai Mae doesn't seem to see many foreigners (we were the only non-locals there at the time), despite the attractive decor.

We were inside the restaurant as soon as it opened, and we started off with some thirst-quenching drinks. I can't say for sure if I remember this correctly, but I'm almost certain that the green drink is bai bua bok, a rejuvenating herbal juice made from Asiatic pennywort, while the red drink is probably nam kra jieb - delightfully tart roselle juice.

Iced beverages at Khun Nai Mae - I think the green one is pennywort, and the red is roselle.

As I drafted this post, I looked online for English reviews of Khun Nai Mae, to no avail, other than a write-up from the bilingual Compass magazine. I checked out the Thai reviews via Google Translate, and at this point I find out that, apparently, Khun Nai Mae means "Your Mother's Noodles". I am wary about trusting Google Translate, but it sounds plausible. Anyway, it seems that they make the rice vermicelli fresh daily at this restaurant. How lovely! I wish I knew this when we were there, I think I would have appreciated our meal even more, knowing the care that went into it.

We were impressed with our lunch at Khun Nai Mae, in any case. There were curries, and served alongside those were delicate bundles of rice vermicelli, some in a classic white, others slightly tinted with soft, pretty hues. Then there were vegetables such as beansprouts, cabbage, bitter melon, snake beans, and pickled mustard greens.

All that food, and our drinks, came to a total of 200 baht. Not bad at all!

Lunch at Khun Nai Mae - vermicelli, curry, and assorted vegetables.

And of course, while we wandered our way through Chiang Mai, we also made sure we set aside an afternoon for Catmosphere, which claims to be the world's first global space cat cafe franchise (there is a branch in Sydney as well). It looked pretty snazzy. It was busy, but we were lucky and didn't have to wait too long for a table to open up. Then, we just had to use hand sanitizer and put on slippers - all provided by the cafe - and we were ready to embark on our cat-patting journey here.

The space-themed Catmosphere cat cafe in Chiang Mai.

We could choose to either pay an entry fee, or purchase food and/or drinks from the menu, and we opted for the latter. I had a kiwi soda for 75 baht and a blueberry cheesecake for 115 baht. Simon had a coffee for 85 baht and a brownie for 95 baht. The presentation for Simon's brownie included a cat face drawn with chocolate sauce!

Brownie at Chiang Mai's Catmosphere cat cafe.

When we visited, quite a few of the cats were taking an afternoon nap.

Sleepy kitty.

These two were just too adorable.

More sleeping kittens! Curled up together, too cute!

Others were awake and alert.

Darth - a black cat with a perpetually funny face.

It's reasonably comfortable in here, and the space theme is fun to look at.

 Apollo the ginger cat admires the space-themed decor at Catmosphere cat cafe, Chiang Mai.

When this one woke up, we couldn't help but notice the colour of the eyes - one yellow, one blue. So striking!

Luna, an odd-eyed cat - a white cat with heterochromia.

The main downside that I observed here is that many of the cats at Catmosphere seem to be fed up with the human attention that they receive - perhaps they were having a particularly bad day when we visited, but most of them were not keen to interact with the guests, so this is definitely an aspect where I hope to see improvements. Keep the cats happy, and the rest will follow, right? This sweet ginger kitten is an exception, though - full of youthful optimism and gloriously playful, and we got to enjoy a bit of quality time with him, so all was not lost!

Boba, a sweet and playful ginger kitten.

So there you have it. The restaurant and cafe culture in Chiang Mai is really quite substantial, enough to keep us sufficiently entertained most days. And then there are those night markets... but that's a subject for the next post!

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Thursday, 5 May 2016

chiang mai odds and ends: food, markets, temples, more food

A temple in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai... where do I start?

Fresh off the plane, we grabbed a taxi. 200 baht and 20 minutes later, we arrived in our guesthouse, situated in a tambon (sub-district) a moderate walk away from the popular old city area.

Upon our arrival, the guesthouse owner, Boyd, immediately made us feel at home, giving us various ideas for things that we could do in Chiang Mai. Very helpfully, he suggested a place nearby where we could have lunch, and it didn't take us long to make our way there!

A nice pad grapow - coarsely minced meat (pork or chicken) stir-fried with basil and chilli, 35 baht per plate.

It was a great first meal in Chiang Mai - the classic dish of pad grapow, stir-fried meat with chilli and basil. We shared a pad grapow moo (pork) and pad grapow gai (chicken) between us for a total cost of 70 baht. This is our favourite kind of meal: cheap and cheerful!

Over the next few weeks - in between our jaunts to other parts of North Thailand - we had a lot of fun exploring Chiang Mai, and I'll be dissecting all that, post by post. Anything else that doesn't quite fit into a specific topic? They'll go into this general introductory post.

This dog, for example.

Seriously. Is this even a dog? Perhaps it's some kind of hyena-dog hybrid? I NEED TO KNOW. We saw quite a few interesting dogs in Thailand, but this one takes the cake.

A hyena-dog mix? Yes? No? Maybe?

Chiang Mai is known for its night markets (and I'll get to that another time), but there is also no shortage of markets that are open during the day - Somphet market, Muang Mai market, Warorot market - and to be honest, I can't remember which ones we went to.

But anyway, here are a few shots I took from our market wanderings.

Assorted fish products at a market stall.

Look at all these neatly-arranged fishies!

Impressively arranged fish at the market.

Fruits galore, too.

Purple corn and assorted fruits.

We're not very much into temple-hopping, but we did check out Wat Chedi Luang one day. This ancient structure was interesting to look at, and the temple grounds here made for a nice stroll.

Wat Chedi Luang.

Also on the temple grounds are two viharns, which are assembly halls or worship halls where Buddhist ceremonies take place. The viharns are much newer and shinier in comparison to the chedi.

The black viharn at the Wat Chedi Luang temple grounds.

Such exquisite details!

The gold viharn at the Wat Chedi Luang temple grounds.

We ate regularly and frequently.

Fish cakes for breakfast? Hell yes!

Gimme the fish cakes.

Noodle soup for lunch? Bring it on!

Noodle soup.

Green curry chicken with rice for dinner? More times than we can count!

Green curry chicken.

Of course, we continue to make friends with cats, even during mealtimes. Especially during mealtimes.

You have to love a place where you can pat a cat while you eat your dinner.

About this particular food shack. I don't know the name - actually, I don't think it had an English name at all, and I don't read Thai, so... but anyway, it was recommended to me by a nice woman who gave me a massage. We had a pleasant chat, and of course,  it made sense that I would seize the opportunity to ask her for suggestions on where to eat.

Moving along, the stir-fried pork with Chinese broccoli here was pretty tasty.

Stir-fried pork with gailan. And rice, of course.

But this was the dish that I was really after: goong chae nam pla, raw prawns in a dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and chilli, garnished with coriander leaves and bitter melon. If you haven't had this dish before, it may seem slightly daunting, but if you like sashimi or ceviche, and you're cool with the sassy flavour hit that the Thais do so well, you'll probably enjoy goong chae nam pla, too.

This is only the second time I've had goong chae nam pla in my life, and I have to say, it's not as sensational as the one I had the first time around (very, very fresh prawns or shrimp are key), but it was still good to revisit the dish again. My search for awesome goong chae nam pla continues, or maybe I'll try my hand at preparing it for myself someday!

Goong chae nam pla - a ceviche-like dish of raw shrimp or prawns in a tangy, spicy, pungent dressing.

Finally, before I wrap this post up - let's not forget about dessert. After filling ourselves up with snacks from the night market one evening, I decided to have just one more treat when we walked past some street stalls during the stroll back to our guesthouse. I grew up with this dessert - soft, tender tofu in a brown sugar and ginger syrup. The version here had a little surprise for me: a packet of super-crunchy deep-fried dough on the side, with a lovely hint of aroma from black sesame seeds. I threw it all into the bowl, and I loved it.

Tao huai nam khing - bean curd in ginger syrup, 10 baht for a serving.

So this concludes my haphazard first post on Chiang Mai. Stay tuned for the more structured posts to come in the following weeks, which includes pictures and thoughts on subjects as diverse as night markets, restaurants, a cat cafe, a day trip to Lamphun, plus the stunning festival of lights in Thailand!

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