“Sawadee ka … pad krapow gai kai dow?”
It takes me a second to decode the stream of rapidfire Thai as it emerges from behind the surgical mask, the crinkling of the eyes betraying the hint of a smile.
“Krap, krap. Korp koon krap”, I reply.
I’ve only been here a few short weeks but the local night market food vendors already know me well. Why yes, indeed I would love some ground chicken and basil on rice, with a runny fried egg on top. It wasn’t that hard to guess, I suppose – I’ve probably ordered it from her at least three times this week.
She has been playing with me lately, though – quietly turning up the heat in each meal to see just how much it takes to make me sweat.
It’s an experiment I’m happy to be a part of.
Turning away as pungent smoke starts to billow from the wok, I walk the dozen paces to say hi to Mrs Pa. A big grin lights up her face as she recognises me, and with a raised eyebrow she enquires “Strawberry and orange?”. She knows that this is my favourite after her recent recommendation, and while strawberries stay in season that’s unlikely to change.
We talk for a bit – I make sure she is feeling better after hurting her back earlier in the week, and she catches up on my small amount of daily gossip – as she serves the endless flow of customers that line up into the street for her amazing fruit shakes.
For those that know her Mrs Pa is an institution. I mean, how many other stall owners at Chiang Mai gate have featured in a CNN article lately? The perfect mix of ingredients comes with every shake – the freshest fruit, a dash of sugar here, a pinch of salt there, blended with ice and served with a smile.
The cold drink is a welcome relief as the spicy pad krapow makes my taste buds tingle. I look up from my dinner occasionally, surveying the sea of plastic tables for a familiar face. Chiang Mai has become a blogging mecca of late, with dozens making the pilgrimage in recent times. Some pass through in a matter of days, while others hang around for months or even years. It is that kind of place.
That I don’t spot anyone I know tonight is somewhat of a rarity. There is usually someone else around for dinner, whether by chance or design. Many of us live nearby, and those that don’t still seem to regularly turn up at Chiang Mai Gate after dark in the hunt for food. Like a moth to a flame it draws us in, day after day.
The price is one reason, since tonight’s food and drink cost under two bucks. The freshness is another – everything is sourced daily and prepared in front of me. I would be far more concerned about getting sick from a lonely hotel restaurant than from any of the busy food stalls in this city.
Like Chiang Mai itself, though, I think it’s the atmosphere of the market that keeps bringing us back. There are plenty of foreigners here but this place has a local feel. It is laid back, relaxed, chilled out. A low buzz of friendly conversation is the backdrop to the noise of nearby traffic. You pay when you’re done, not before you start. Find a seat, sit down. Your dinner will find you when it’s ready.
There is nothing particularly special about today. Yesterday was much the same. Tomorrow probably won’t be much different. A few different faces, maybe. A new fruit shake.
This was just a little slice of daily life in Chiang Mai.
I don’t think I ever want to leave.