Diaries From The Field: Of chilis and smiles in the land of pagodas


In the land of pagodas and smiles, I was chili-fied, literally and figuratively. In northern Thailand, everything is cooked with chili from breakfast to dinner. The use of chili is as old as their temples. From the hotels to the street, chili is a way of life. For the northern Thais, chili is used like salt and as a baseline in their food preparation. Without chili, the food would be naked.

White Temple in Chiang Rai is one of the most visited in northern Thailand. Photo by Jude Baggo
White Temple in Chiang Rai is one of the most visited in northern Thailand. Photo by Jude Baggo

During a conference, I was invited by two new Burmese friends to join them for a dinner at a popular food square in Chiang Mai. I agreed immediately. The food at the hotel was all chili-based from soup to the scrambled eggs. I was hoping that at the food square, I would find options of chili-free dinner. I was so wrong. Without any choice, I picked up a fried chicken and bamboo shoots as its partner. I nearly lost half of my body fluids after eating because of excessive sweating. My nasal passage was also cleared. On the other hand, my Burmese friends finished their food effortless. They just smiled and treated me with bottles of fresh juice of passion fruit mixed with cucumber. For a week, this has been my story. My taste buds were punished to the core.

But chili is only a single part of their food. What really amazes me was their food presentation to its content. We have similar food but they have more colorful, tastier, more presentable, more options and served in bigger plates. They also use more herbs in their food than we do. Their rice is exceptional.

Northern Thailand is also home to sweet and tropical fruits. Anywhere you go, fresh fruits are available at cheaper prices compared to here. At the food square, tons of fruits are displayed along with freshly extracted juices. When my friend Julius and I were stuck because of a sudden rain near our hotel, we found a small stall selling fruits. While waiting for the rain to stop, we tried one of their best-selling juice. It was a mix of kiwi, apple and some herbs. Surprisingly, the small stall provides free wifi to its customers and it is faster and more efficient than here too.

But aside from its spicy and colorful food, Thailand is also the land of smiles. From the flight attendant to the seller on the street, their smiles are wide and clear. They seem to be advertising tooth products. But my theory is, they smile a lot because of the spicy food. In my experience, because of too much chili in my food, I tend to smile every time I finish chewing my food to ease the burning sensation and to inhale oxygen. And this technique was effective since I was able to survive a week of spicy food.

But joking aside, when we went to eat again at the food square, we used smile to agree and trade on food. When I signaled the food seller to open the pots, she smiled. When I point at what food I want, I also smiled. She smiled back and prepared my order. When I was going to pay, we do not speak the same language but understand each other, so I smiled and showed her 20, 50 and 100 baht bills. She smiled back and got the 50 baht for my food and 20 baht for my lemon juice. I smiled back and said thank you. See, who needs English to order and pay for food.

There is a saying that if you smile, the world will smile back to you but in northern Thailand, smiling is a culture and way of life.

If you have the means and time, why not include Chiang Mai in you bucket list, it has much to offer. # nordis.net


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