Thailand Part 2: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and The Golden Triangle

Have you ever lived in a moment that almost made you cry, for its beauty and, perhaps even more so, for the realization that you’d never experience it the same way again?

Tea fields and mountains of northern Thailand. Complete Thailand travel guide to plan your visit. | found at wellplated.com @wellplated

That’s how I felt sipping this pitcher of red oolong tea. We were in a remote area of in northeast Thailand, in a tiny town that was little more than a single road with a market. Tea was the year-round cash crop, and the steep sides of the mountains were lined with orderly rows of tea plants.

Oolong tea fields of Thailand

Like the rest of northern Thailand, the tea leaf fields were verdant green. They also smelled heavenly. I’d never smelled fresh tea leaves before, certainly not in collective like this, and I couldn’t breathe deeply enough. I’ve never craved a scent before, but now as I look back, I miss it. The tea leaf plants perfumed the mountain air with the most fresh, relaxing smell. I wish I could have bottled it up and taken it home with me.

I’m sure this village was exactly like dozens of others all dotting the same mountain range, but just that night, when Ben and I had slipped our local guide, walked down the mountain road away from our lodging, and stumbled upon this little  tea store, it felt like we were having a private experience all our own.

Tea fields of northern Thailand

It was also Thanksgiving. Or at least it was for us. We were 13 hours ahead of both of our families, and technically, they hadn’t woken up yet. Here we were, in our own private tea shop, with our own private holiday.

This moment—these precious 30 minutes with a pitcher of tea while I begged the sun not to set—was not only one of my favorites of the trip; it was one of the most special of my life. Unlike the elephants and the Thai cooking classes (which I also loved and will be telling you about a bit further down the page), this stop wasn’t on our agenda. I couldn’t have planned it if I wanted to.

This is so much of why I travel: the unexpected, unplannable moments that take my breath away, for their beauty, their singularity, or for the company with whom I share them. This Thanksgiving night with the pitcher of tea—this was one of those moments. I knew it as I lived it.

Northern Thailand Tea Fields

Oh dear. I just wrote you nearly 400 words about a cup of tea. How will we get through this?

Tea. We need more tea. Or wine. Whatever your beverage of choice, pour yourself a cup and get comfy. It’s Thailand Travel, Part II: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the Golden Triangle. There will be elephants! There will be pad Thai! Pull out your virtual passports. We are heading east.


BANGKOK

Grand Palace Bangkok

If you crave serious variety in your travel agenda, look no further than Thailand. While the country has a uniting undercurrent (I think I’d call it friendly and spicy?), the cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai and countryside like the tea leaf fields I described above offer completely different experiences.

We started our trip in Bangkok, where our flight touched down at 2:35 a.m. After 30+ hours of traveling, my body had absolutely no idea what was happening. I did, however, immediately recognize that I was very, very happy to be arriving at the point of our trip that I like to refer to as “PINCH ME“: The Peninsula Hotel Bangkok.

Peninsula Hotel Bangkok
If the bamboo-hut and lack-of-plumbing situation I described in last week’s post about hiking in northern Thailand didn’t appeal to you, I suspect our Bangkok hotel stay will. Heck, even if the rustic accommodations DID appeal to you, I still would wager my last forkful of pad Thai that you’d enjoy your stay here tremendously. The hotel’s PR team put together a lovely experience for us, and it was a dream of a way to begin our trip.

The rooms are spacious, comfy, and all offer views of the river and thoughtful extras. Every night, we walked back into our room to a fresh spread of treats that included everything from French madeleines and chocolate fondue to coconut truffles and cookies. I kept asking myself, is this my real life?

Peninsula Hotel Bangkok RoomThe amenities and grounds of the hotel are stunning too. The breakfast buffet included everything I could dream of ordering, from made-to-order omelets, to vanilla bean bread pudding, to a stunning array of tropical fruit, and Ben enjoyed napping off his jetlag at the pool.

The hotel also offers different cultural experiences, including a Thai cooking class that’s held outdoors, right alongside the river.

Peninsula Bangkok Thai cooking classLeading up to the trip, I had assumed that the best food we would try would be in restaurants, but I was wrong. Our two Thai cooking classes, including the one at The Peninsula, were two of the best meals of the trip. We cooked (and ate) four incredible courses, and even picked some of the herbs we used from The Peninsula’s on-site garden.

Thai Cooking Class in Bangkok

Adding to the “pinch me” factor of the Peninsula is its spa, which has its own facility and is positively serene. Ben and I had our own private room with a jacuzzi (<—for real).  We were both on clouds after our massages; it was beyond relaxing.

Our final experience at the Peninsula Bangkok was the sunset river cruise. I sipped bubbly and enjoyed views of the city while the hotel’s small river boat jetted along the dark water. The sky around us was lit by a mix of modern buildings and ancient temples. This blend of old and new permeated so much of Bangkok and was fascinating to observe.

Grand Palace Bangkok

Our stay in Bangkok was short, but we did manage to squeeze in a visit to a night market on the outskirts of the city, where we grazed the food stalls. Top bites: fried squid, beef soup, spicy minced duck, banana waffles, coconut egg pudding, fish balls (don’t ask), and fried caterpillars. Or rather, caterpillar. We each ate just one. They tasted like Cheetos, minus the cheese.

Grand Palace Bangkok

We also visited the sparkling Grand Palace (two pictures most directly above), but honestly, it was so miserably hot and humid, this part of the day is a bit of a blur. We snapped a few photos, dragged ourselves aboard a water taxi to the airport, then headed north to…


CHIANG MAI

Oldest temple (wat) in Chiang Mai

We had two days in Chiang Mai, a city that has a reputation for a stellar food scene and that I anticipated would be my favorite part of our entire vacation. I was wrong.

Now, do not mistake me. I really enjoyed Chiang Mai, especially our cooking class, but it wasn’t what I expected. Much of the city has become quite touristy, and the old quarter is positively overflowing with cheap bars and the backpackers who keep them in business. I’m happy to see the city doing well, and it’s wonderful for the Thai economy, but I couldn’t help but pick up the vibe that we’d arrived about ten years too late. After a few less-than-stellar restaurant meals, we started wondering why the city had the sterling food reputation that it did.

Then, we took a Thai cooking class at Cooking at Home.

Cooking at Home Thai Cooking School

If you scour restaurants in Thailand looking for the best Thai food of your life, you’re searching the wrong places. We ate A LOT on our trip, and over and over again, the very best meals were the ones prepared by home cooks like Pom and Vasin of Cooking at Home Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai.

Cooking at Home Chiang Mai

Pom and Vasin, the world’s cutest married couple and Thai cooking dynamos, picked us up at our hotel for what turned out to be some of the most enjoyable six hours of my life. We escaped the city crowds and shopped at a small local market near the couple’s home. I was fascinated by the wide array of exotic produce, poultry, tropical fruits, and candies. Even the selection of chilis was enormous! Ben basically had to carry me back to the van so that we could start the cooking lesson on time.

Local market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The cooking school is held at couple’s home, in an outdoor area by a lovely field. The setting was serene, the instruction approachable, and the four courses? OH MY. The meal we prepared with Cooking at Home was one of the best of the trip. I am still dreaming about that pad Thai and mango sticky rice.

In addition to offering their culinary skills, Pom and Vasin also offered themselves. We ended up staying an extra hour chatting about Thai culture, the impact of tourism on the country, and all the reasons we both love to cook. By the end of the day, I felt like we had become friends.


ELEPHANTS!

Elephants are an integral part of Thai history, culture, and lore. Visiting one of the dozens and dozens of elephant parks around Chiang Mai is a top tourist attraction. Unfortunately, like many natural resources, elephants are commonly exploited and mistreated for monetary gain. If you travel to Thailand and would like to visit elephants, please carefully research the company and elephant park that you decide to visit and, through that visit, financially support.

Elephant Nature Park Chiang Mai

Ben and I choose to support Elephant Nature Park, an elephant sanctuary dedicated to rehabilitating elephants rescued from the logging industry, abusive tour companies, and other harmful practices. We had the opportunity to feed and bathe these beautiful creatures, and to learn about their back-stories too. A few of them had pasts so tragic, I was actually moved to tears.

Elephant nature park

I know it might sound silly to cry over an elephant, but when you are stroking their warm trunks and looking into those big, sad eyes, it’s hard to feel anything but passion and sympathy for these intelligent, powerful creatures.


GOLDEN TRIANGLE

From Chiang Mai, we headed north once more to The Golden Triangle, the northern most point of Thailand where three countries—Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos—all intersect.

Golden Triangle

This area earned a notorious reputation for its role in the opium trade. Deaths, dollars, and eventually solid gold (at one point, gold was the only acceptable currency for opium) have soaked this area over the centuries. Although the opium cultivation is now illegal in Thailand, its borders are not immune to drug passage.

If you do decide to visit the Golden Triangle area, I recommend stopping at the Opium Museum, even for half an hour. Parts are a bit sobering, but it is an important part of the area’s history, even if it is a less flattering one.


TEA FIELDS

In case the first 400 words of this post didn’t cover it, I loved seeing the tea plantations in northern Thailand. We were outside the village of Mae Salong, where sprawling rows of oolong plants sweep entire mountainsides. We enjoyed a tea tasting and peeked inside tea factories, where the leaves are still picked and processed entirely by hand.

Tea plantation in Thailand

We spent the night in this region with a local Thai family, who served us what Ben has declared as, “one of the top 5 meals of my life.” I have to agree. And we made it in this outdoor kitchen! It’s clearly not what you have; it’s how you use it.

Thailand village homestay

The tea fields and Golden Triangle area are an easy stop between the more popular Chiang Mai and hilltribe village hiking, which I describe in detail in this post. While I probably could have skipped the Golden Triangle, our homestay and seeing the tea fields make the trek to the far north worth it.

Mountain villages in the north of Thailand

This is my last post covering Thailand (we’ll be off to Vietnam next!). As always, thank you so much for reading my travel adventures. I love sharing them with you, and I know that I’ll often refer back to this post when I need a little virtual trip back east. I hope my words and the photos took you there with me too, even if just for a moment.

Is anyone else craving pad Thai? Right. Off to refill my tea.

If you’d liked this post, don’t miss the rest of our Thailand and Vietnam adventure!

Thank you to The Peninsula Hotel for offering us a reduced rate and for hosting us for the cooking class.  I was under no obligation to write this post, but wanted to include the information because we truly enjoyed our stay. As always, all opinions are my own.

About Erin Clarke

I'm fearlessly dedicated to making healthy food taste incredible. Wearer of plaid, lover of bourbon, and firmly convinced that sweets and veggies both deserve a place at the table. MORE ABOUT ERIN...

29 comments

  1. hey girl -love the post! The places look awesome! Glad ya’ll had a lot of fun!

  2. Delightful to hear such a refreshing post. I am sure the weather was trying but you suppressed the notion mostly. I have friends thare are living near Bangkok, and are about to move north where the weather is supposed to be cooler. I might just think of visiting there as never considered it before. Thanks. And look forward to your food blogs on the discoveries there. Yumm!

    • Debbie, if you have friends there, I can’t think of a better reason to visit! Thailand is truly a wonderful place (and the weather in the north is DEFINITELY cooler). Thanks so much!

  3. So happy to read your post, I do t know much about Bangkok or Thailand but I just added it to my bucket list. When you get sick of cooking someday I think you should be a travel writer

    • Laura, Thailand is DEFINITELY bucket list worthy! And travel writing is my total dream job. If you know any editors at National Geographic put in a good word for me ;-)

  4. Your photography is amazing! Especially love the picture of the tower. Looking forward to the recipes of some of your home cooked meals. Mango sticky rice!

  5. Omgosh how amazing was your trip! Thank you for sharing with us and the an insight, when i want to buy a food product from Thailand is it safe and would you buy/eat it? I know that’s a big questions and you didn’t see a fishery, but in your opinion? Thanks

    • Hi June! I think it depends upon the product. We didn’t have any issues with sickness at all. I’m sure any shelf-stable, imported products are safe too! I’m afraid I don’t have any insights on the fisheries, since we didn’t visit or learn about them.

  6. CRAZY BEAUTIFUL! And yes. I actually do cry in those moments. I embrace them wholeheartedly, in my soul for forever and ever. It looks and sounds like you’ll do this with your Thailand trip as well. Thanks for sharing, Erin. 

  7. Hi, Erin!!! Your tríp was amazing. I from Argentina and I wil be in Bangkok in a few days and I would like to buy some species. Can you advice me on which ones to buy?
    I always read your blog and i like it very much…
    Thank you!!

    • Hi Debora! We didn’t do any spice shopping specifically, but I think you should go for whichever ones you love most and can’t find at home. For me, that would have been tamarind paste (a key ingredient for authentic pad Thai), which is harder to come by at our standard grocery store. I would have loved to have flown home a whole bag of lemongrass and kefir lime leaves, but I don’t think U.S. customs would have liked that very much :) Safe travels, and I hope you LOVE your time there!

  8. I am so incredibly jealous of your trip. I’ve been dying to go to Thailand, and this post just further solidified that. I’ll have to bookmark the cooking school if I visit!

  9. Prior to your writing, everyone I have spoken to who visited Thailand hated it because of the oppressive heat and the use of fish sauce in everything. One gal said she existed on Auntie Anne’s pretzels! I love how descriptive you are — I could almost smell the tea leaves! Even with how beautiful it is, and everyone agrees about the beauty, Thailand is not on my list. I’ll just live vicariously through you. And you look so incredibly thin in these pictures — eat some cookies! Merry Christmas! P.S. I appreciate your elephant story — would have loved to have done that! They are such beautiful creatures and I hate it when animals of any kind are abused in any way.

    • Tami, the heat in Bangkok was INTENSE, and I’ve heard the same about the south. The north was much more pleasant, and at night it was even cool sometimes. Thank you so much for your kind words about my descriptions. I’m glad I could take you to Thailand with me, at least virtually :) A very Merry Christmas to you too!

  10. So beautiful. Looking at these pictures brings back a lot of memories for me (:

  11. Hi Erin,

    This lovely post could not have been more timely.  We will be in Bangkok (3 nights) and Chiang Mai (2 nights) next week! I was having trouble decided which cooking class to take but you just made the decision much easier for me. ;) Do you have any restaurant recommendations in both places? 

    Thanks so much. Btw, I just recently came across your blog and you are one excellent writer!

    • Izz, it was meant to be. You will LOVE cooking at home. Tell them Erin the food blogger sent you :)
      For Bangkok, we loved the food at The Peninsula, of course (try the Thai restaurant if you want a great meal), but the rest of the time it was mostly street food places for which I can’t recall the names. In Chiang Mai, we struck out a few times (nothing bad but nothing to write home about). The best of the Chiang Mai restaurants we tried was called Lemongrass (or Lemongrass Kitchen). The rest of the trip, we relied on Trip Advisor, and those recs were pretty spot-on. Have an amazing time!

  12. Absolutely stunning, Erin!! Photos are amazing, but your descriptions are phenomenal. Thank you so much for taking the time to give us a glimpse into your wonderful trip. (And for what it’s worth, you don’t need cookies. You look fit, healthy, and no one has a right to say otherwise. Sorry for being upset by it, but I think it’s rude to say anything such as this.)

    • Kori, every comment of yours makes me smile :) Thank you so much for your continued support, both of my blog and of me personally too. It truly means so much. I hope that you and Matt have a very very happy holiday season!

  13. This post made me want to go back to Thailand.  I think it’s difficult to not fall in love with the country and the people when you spend time there.  The last photo you posted reminds me of the rice paddies in Bali, which form beautiful terraces on the hillsides.  After your description of your cooking class in Chiang Mai, I’m beginning to think that Thai cooking schools all over must use the same dishes.  The ones you mentioned we included in the class we took in Phuket.  That class was also in an outdoor location, but right on the beach.  
    We have also ridden elephants in Phuket.  The place we went was called Siam Elephant Safari, and they also care well for their elephants.  It makes perfect sense that in your experience you would have felt close to the elephants; they definitely relate to people.  Consider that a young elephant gets a young mahout (caretaker) and the two stay together for life.  I’m glad you had such a good time in one of my very favorite countries.  The 7 weeks a friend and I spent in Bangkok are a time I will never forget.

    • Seven weeks in Bangkok, WOW! And while the cooking school dishes might be similar (they were between our two classes), they were so good, I didn’t mind. Bali is a place I dream of going. I’m going to have to compare notes between the two countries if I do. Thank you so much for sharing your memories so generously. I really enjoyed reading them!

  14. Hi Erin! I’m thinking about visiting Thailand or Vietnam (or maybe both??) for my honeymoon. My fiance and I are newbies to international travel. How long was your entire trip? We plan to do two weeks, but I want to be smart and realistic given how long the travel time is to that part of the world! (We’re in NY btw). Thanks!

    • Hi Kim! We had 17 days total, including travel time. I think you definitely want 2 weeks in the country, so if you can pad a little time before and after for the crazy long flights, it makes a difference!

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