The Smell Guide: Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’ve been around here and there, but there’s one place that, no matter where else I travel to, will always have a piece of my heart. That place is Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Standard university uniform, complete with mandatory hat
Standard university uniform, complete with mandatory hat

I studied in Chiang Mai for a summer semester in 2012, and while travel had certainly always been a part of my life, it was this opportunity in the Land of Smiles that restructured my priorities and reaffirmed travel and exploration as my true passion.

There’s so much I love about Thailand: the people (some of the most generous and unconditionally helpful I have met), the cultural sites, the stunning natural scenery, and the food. MY GOD, the food. But right now, we’re here to focus on something specifically: the smells.

Consider this the Chiang Mai Smell Guide.

Eels

 

During my time studying in Chiang Mai, my classmate tried to explain to me the different classes of Thai street smells. I didn’t particularly like this fellow, and found his assessment to border on derogatory—but he had a point. Chiang Mai was certainly filled with smells. And of many varieties, at that: the good, the not so good, and the bad.

 

The Good

Hot and sour tamarind soup with prawns and acacia leaves
Hot and sour tamarind soup with prawns and acacia leaves

 

 There were the good smells—comfortingly  garlic and saltily sour, generously dosed with galangal and lemongrass and lime leaves: the pad see ew (stir-fried noodles), the savory barbecue, the tom yum goong (sour soup with shrimp), the khai jiao (Thai omellete) vendor I’d limp toward after every wild night out.

 

The khai jiao vendor on my street
The khai jiao vendor on my street
Lunch on campus
Lunch on campus

 

And there were more—the temples’ incense clouds, the delectable mango sticky rice I had dreams about, the devilishly sweet and sinfully delicious pa thong ko (Thai donuts), or one of the many cafeterias on the Chiang Mai University campus that I’d wander around ogling at the steaming broths, the fragrant cooked vegetables, the unidentified things on sticks, the liquid-filled bags with straws in them—so many things I wanted more time to devour with my eyes and my nose and my stomach.

 

First taste of pa thong ko
First taste of pa thong ko

 

The Not So Good

And then, the not so good smells—bags of old Chang beer cans, scavenging cockroaches, the heads of some unidentifiable animals roasting, their eyes peering back with the slightest hints of smiles. The not-so-great, but entirely manageable smells.

Fried roaches
I’d rather see the roaches cooked than crawling around my bedroom!

The Bad

Finally, there were those pungent, unutterable smells. Now, this last class of smells is highly contestable, and some are certainly more sensitive to them than others. I, myself, am not entirely sure this class of smells is fully distinct from the last class—but, I am only one person, and I represent only one opinion. Thus, my categorization of this class of supremely bad smells relies heavily on my observations of others.

These are the smells that, no kidding, seem to raise a violent and visceral bodily response like one elicited from a corpse brought back from the dead, unhinging gag reflexes and churning stomachs. From where these last class of smells comes is a mystery—they often waft in like an incubus in one second and then they’re gone, while other times they coddle and enslave you like an overprotective boyfriend. These are the kinds of smells that, when you confront them, you don’t just smell them—you feel them. In the pit of your stomach, on your skin as you step past the sewage vents, hot, thick steam swallowing you. “Dirty, stinky…smelly, bloody NAAASTY ASS!” another classmate of mine once screamed through the streets of Phuket, describing the deadly odors you couldn’t escape at night in the city.

(Or, maybe you’re not affected by the smells at all and you just sit back and laugh at the silly farangs who can’t handle it. I’m almost inclined to believe they’re of the farang imagination.)

 

The Smell Triumvirate

Wararot Market
Wararot Market

One of the best places for all smells is the Warorot Market in Old Town. People of all walks of life, ages, everything, tunnel your entrance, a dash of images appearing between their limbs or lack thereof: buckets of slivering eels here, baby turtles there, a little flash of bloody fish heads, mouths hanging open like they’ve  watched the finale of Project Runway Season 8, and, like the rest of the sane world, simply couldn’t fathom the blatant robbery Mondo endured. 

 

Fish heads

 

Baby turtles
Baby turtles

 

Fragrant basil so addictive you stack it so high you lose your soup
Fragrant basil so addictive you stack it so high you lose your soup

 

The market rows take you through mounds of spices and fresh herbs, things you want to buy so you can stuff your face in them, sausages twisted into swirls, bags of sinister fungus, vendors assaulting you with eager eyes and desperate pleas. “Cheap-cheap” they all say, “just for you! Beautiful lady!”

Bird's-eye view of Warorot
Bird’s-eye view of Warorot

 

The sulfuric steam of durian fruit beckons you further, through pyramids of dragon fruit and sticky mango rice. Try the rambutan. Peel its urchin-like skin, the soft spurs that tickle your fingers. Slurp on its sweet fruit, swirling your tongue ’round and ‘round, slimy and juicy and soft like a peeled grape, nibbling it off the seed. You can buy a kilo because it costs 20 baht, less than one U.S. dollar.

Rambutan for 20 baht
Rambutan for 20 baht

 

Rambutan-nosed reindeer
Rambutan-nosed reindeer

 

Outside the main area of the market, red trucks, or songthaews (shared taxi trucks) honk in eternal cacophony, a sound grating further against the notes of howling tuk-tuks hailing you for their services, against the whine of whizzing scooters—there are no crosswalks so you have to run across with a leap of faith that no one will hit you. But it’s worth the risk—one of my favorite food vendors stands on shaky legs across the street.

It’s nothing special on the outside, but my oh my if it isn’t bursting with soul. You walk past it and you see nothing more than some little make-shift shack with patio furniture that the flies never leave alone, faded grainy pictures of the food they offer peeling off the windows, laminate yellowed with weather and time. But if you stop, if you walk in and point to one of those faded pictures and you sit and you wave away those pesky flies and you steady the shaky plastic patio furniture while you wait and watch your food be made before you by some loving hands and then you take a bite—you will realize you’ve found a gem. A shaky, dirt-cheap, hole-in-the-wall, but glistening, gem.

 

Tom yum goong
Tom yum goong

 

The eatery was run by three of the kindest women I came to know in Thailand, and they would always greet me with beaming smiles and recognition. One of them was a young girl about the same age as me, perhaps a year or two younger, maybe 18 or 19. She wore her dark silky hair in a low pony tail, so straight and tidy compared to mine. “Sawatdee ka,” we’d exchange, as I stood at the counter clutching my beginner’s Thai Language textbook, trying to order stir-fried morning glory or tom kha (coconut milk sour soup). She’d giggle politely at me trying to pronounce “mai sai nua,” asking for my dish to have no meat, standing there in my university school-girl uniform, the dark pleats in my skirt a little wrinkled from the bumpy songthaew ride over, hair curling wildly in the humidity. I learned this young girl’s name was Hom, and I’d go visit her almost every day after class, though more of our conversations were exchanged with hand gestures and laughs than words. I’d hand her my 30 or 35 baht, settle into one of those shaky plastic chairs, and wait for whatever incredible savory dish I had picked at random that day.

 

Stir-fried morning glory
Stir-fried morning glory

 

Inside that little restaurant was the heart of that first category of Thai smells—the delicious food cooked with caring, speedy hands and smiles. The incredible, wholesome smells that make the other classes worth it, the smells of richness and spice and bursting flavor, and, lastly, the smells that make impressions so deep because they come from the warm souls of the Thai people and their unforgettable, infinite kindness. These are the smells I live for.

The Smell Guide

 

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  1. Oh wow, I’m going to Thailand in December and I cannot wait to try all these amazing dishes. Maybe not the bugs though… Do you have any tips on what to do in Chiang Mai? Thanks xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh how fantastic! I would highly recommend you put aside a few days and do a jungle trek if you have the time! As far as things more in the way of the city, Wat Doi Suthep is a must-see (there are a few little waterfalls on the way up the mountain), and Wat Umong is a beautiful hidden little gem tucked away in the foothills that I highly recommend. Wat Chedi Luang is pretty cool as well and that’s right smack in Old Town–in fact, you can wander around Old Town and see tons of different temples, but the ones I’ve named above are my favorite and (in my opinion) superior!

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  2. jandreiventures May 31, 2016 — 10:32 am

    That’s an amazing experience in Thailand. I guess every traditions has it’s own root in history. The cockroach thing was really *uugghh! haha, but we have to understand also that long time ago, due to scarcity of food they opted to eat those insects to survive starvation. Now, only remnants of history are practiced, but that was still rich and simple way of living. More travels to hear from your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such an interesting post! Great read:)

    Like

  4. This post made my mouth water. Your descriptions, those pictures, all heavenly!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi. This is Dina. While reading your post, I feel like I am also traveling in Thailand. The cockroach one is so different.. I never knew they have that as food. Great post, so informative!👍🏻

    Like

  6. Wow! Looks like you had a brilliant time in Thailand! Can’t wait to visit it myself!

    Do remember what the red/orange and white dish was called? – the one you used as the cover image. My old next door neighbour was Thai and she made a batch and dropped it round to mine but never told me what it was!
    Cheers

    Like

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