Prologue: Foodies rejoice.
I’ve barely had time to process my jet lag before we dive into our itinerary. More than any Out Adventure I’ve been on, food is a big deal on this tour. We actually skip the traditional Welcome Dinner on our first night. Instead we hit the streets to devour a delicious plethora of Thai dishes on a street food tour. Anthony Bourdain would have been proud: what the stalls and restaurants lacked in pretence, they made up for with substance. My mouth was mesmerized, and things only got saltier from there.
Scene 1: This restaurant is called what!?
Thailand is famous for its liberal, sex-positive attitudes. That really shone at Cabbages & Condoms, a restaurant chain where we ate twice. The establishments promote prevention of STDs and unwanted pregnancies in their communities. They also donate profits to charities with complementary objectives. As for the name? It’s based on the sentiment that condoms should be as easy to find as cabbage. Chew on that!
C&C was launched by ex-politician and philanthropist Mechai Viravaidya. Better known as The Condom King, he wants to improve the lives of everyday people through social awareness… and condoms. Condom-blowing contests have been held. Taxi drivers have been given condoms to hand out to fares. Mr. Viravaidya even had Buddhist monks sprinkle holy water on condoms to normalize safer sex practices.
Scene 2: Opium, anyone?
Canadians on the 49th parallel love to scurry across the border for cheese, cheap gas and outlet malls. Similarly, in Chiang Rai, you can ferry across the Khong River to Laos. The area is known as The Golden Triangle – Thailand and Laos share a third border with Myanmar as well. Long rustic boats brought us across the river. There were snacks to buy, knockoff luxury goods aplenty and they even sold opium whisky, amongst other spirits. But ponder this: that’s ostensibly Morphine with a built-in Scotch chaser. And any high to be had off opium whisky would have been countered with the sobering realities of The Hall of Opium, which we visited that afternoon. This museum chronicles how the drug ravaged the region and the world, and we followed a trail of poppy seeds from the first opium dens of Bangkok to our modern opioid crisis. Admittedly the dioramas had a nostalgic camp factor but the museum did make an impression.
Scene 3: Now we’re cooking with coconut milk.
One night in Chiang Mai we cooked our own dinner. To get into the spirit our local guide Tony had us don traditional Thai ‘shorts’ known as chong kraben. It entails wrapping a single piece of silk around your waist then up between your legs. We actually wore these outfits to market, where we met our cooking instructors, and picked up essentials like fresh-squeezed coconut milk. We gave the locals a good laugh – they all wore jeans and t-shirts.
From there, our instructors – a married couple – brought us to their home. Out Adventures has worked with them for a decade and at first the classes were held in their kitchen. Today the family has a fully equipped classroom in the backyard and their classes are a huge draw for culinary tourists in Chiang Mai.
We began by tossing our own papaya salads – not too spicy – then we stirred up chicken curry and prawn pad thai for entrees. Dessert was mango sticky rice and it was divine simplicity. We took a break between each course to eat as family while sipping ice-cold $2 Singha lagers.
Scene 4: A fantastic drag.
Did you even do Thailand if you didn’t do a drag show? They’re one of the penultimate national experiences. We are standing at a fork in the road, or rather the end of a hallway at the Chiang Mai Night Market. Dominating the space is the entrance to a Muay Thai boxing ring. They really emphasize the violence factor. A tiny door on the left is our destination: drag show! Such aa setup might spell trouble in a conservative North American town but this is Thailand. In fact, a large cohort of straight Australian dude-bros was at our show – one admittedly less than impressed after his sloppy kiss from a performer. Just stay out of the splash zone and try not to look like a wounded gazelle…the performing kathoey can smell your fear and thrive on public shaming.
The show was a blast. It married modern pop with feathery camp and occasionally atrocious lip syncing…but that’s what made it so fun.
The Grand Finale: Songkran Festival
If you find yourself on the April departure (Out Adventures visits Thailand four times a year), you can partake in Songkran – their New Year celebration. Rather than count a clock down at midnight the nation celebrates with a daylong water fight. From Chiang Mai up north to the party island of Phuket – where we celebrated – soaker pistols and buckets of ice water come out with primary school glee. It’s also tradition to wear colour so we picked up tropical shirts and prepared to get soaking wet.
Denouement: Making wishes on Phang Nga Bay
On our last full day, following the madness of Songkran in the city, we escaped to the quiet side of Phuket Island: Phang Nga Bay. A one-hour boat ride brought us into a stunning archipelago where mangrove forests, bat-filled caves, secret lagoons and coral reefs awaited discovery.
To end of our afternoon – and our trip – we worked in pairs and built krathongs. These traditional floating baskets are made with banana leaves and flowers, then released while making a wish. We made our symbolic gesture to the water spirits in the bat cave at sunset. This gave the experience mystique. As we released our creations I gave thanks for the epic journey. From the delicious food to the jubilant culture to the full integration of our community, it was clear why this was Out Adventures’ most popular destination. I looked forward to returning soon.
Care to join us in Thailand? Out Adventures visits the Land of Smiles four times a year. Our December (American New Year) and April (Thai New Year/Songkran) excursions feature extra-special itineraries.
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All photos courtesy of Lino DiNallo, or local guide Tony, unless otherwise noted.