Postcard from Thailand: Chiang Mai Mornings

Last week, contributing editor Carl Hoffman set off on a story assignment in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to visit his 81-year-old father, who now lives there. He sent us this dispatch from his travels so far.

Traveling is so much about leaving home, moving through space and time to new worlds full of exotic sights and smells and Others. Which is why it felt strange to fly 14 hours from Washington, D.C. to Tokyo, wait three hours, fly another six to Bangkok, and then spend 13 hours on a train clanking through the night, only to find my 81-year-old father waiting for me on the platform in the sharp, new light of a Chiang Mai morning.  But there he and his girlfriend Nachanok Wichitrattanathada – Nani – were, and I had the sudden feeling of coming home to the other side of the world.  

Even more so because people don’t change, and my father is an old-school traveler and guide: I can remember being little and every visitor to our house in D.C. was driven around to see the monuments and the White House and marched through George Washington’s Mount Vernon, while he rattled off the respective history of each. And so it was yesterday – we piled in Nani’s pickup truck and drove through Chiang Mai, my father pointing out the city’s old walls and the hospital where he receives his cancer treatments and, well, lunch – there is always a meal in there, too. By noon we were in the hills at a lake and now there were nine of us – the tentacles of Nani’s family run deep and wide throughout Chiang Mai district and there are too many aunts and uncles and cousins to count – and under long eaves at a wooden table we ate and ate and ate. Fish and fish heads and soup and mushrooms and big bottles of beer on ice, it was all thick with chili and garlic and basil and peppers that sizzled and popped with flavor and heat.  

When nothing but scales and bones were left, we drove through the bucolic countryside, amid old teak houses on stilts and conical hay bales and rising columns of smoke and paddies, all in the shadow of green mountains. Groups of women under pink and purple umbrellas and wide straw hats pick and plant in the fields. My father, it became clear, is in many ways merely a passenger on this exotic train, and Nani powered us through a succession of relatives’ houses and gardens, where we picked basil-like herbs and ogled big green frogs, and ate thin slices of mango dipped in thick brown chili paste, and by the time we headed home we had armloads of mangoes and herbs and mushrooms and vegetables whose names I didn’t know. 

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There are a lot of restaurants and cooks in her family. At some point there was a grandfather with a ferry and then there was a bridge that put the ferry out of business, and somehow – this I’m still working out – someone cooked for the King 30 years ago and now Nani cooks for the Princess every year and the portraits in the restaurant show Nani kneeling before her, year after year.  

Today is Monday, so this morning, at 6:00 a.m., Nani went to work on her khao soi. The kitchen in back of the Chitlada restaurant, as it’s now named, is narrow. There are a couple of burners, wooden tables crowded with sauces and implements and coconut milk, a three foot wide wok on its own burner. First a bit of coconut milk until it boiled; thick red chili paste mixed in, and then more coconut milk, and on and on, for an hour of nonstop stirring that left my back and shoulders aching. “Like this, like this,” Nani said, showing me how important it was to scoop the rich red sauce from the bottom, and not just stir it, so it would be hot but never burn. Slowly, over the hour, more and more coconut milk went in, and finally cubes of beef, a bit of sugar and salt, and it bubbled and grew redder and richer and not for a second was I allowed to stop flipping and scooping. “I make this with my heart,” she said. Done for the time being, we left it to simmer for an hour. There would be another few steps but Nani said, “Some of it must be secret.”  

Which seems about right. My father is still asleep upstairs and there’s an omelet full of little red chilies waiting for him, the tables are set for the day’s customers and about the only thing that seems clear to me is that there’s a lot to still figure out about his life here.

Carl Hoffman’s most recent book, The Lunatic Express, was published this spring, and was excerpted in the March 2010 issue of Travelerexcerpted in the March 2010 issue of Traveler. You can follow him on Twitter at @lunaticcarl.  

Photos: Carl Hoffman