Hot in the kitchen

Keen to learn how to recreate the authentic taste of Thailand's street food, Mark Wilson takes a cookery break in Chiang Mai and can soon tell his stir-fries from his satays

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a world away from the heat and frenzy of Bangkok. Even in the "cool" season, the temperature in the Thai capital - the hottest city in the world, according to the World Meteorological Organisation - rarely dips below 30C.

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a world away from the heat and frenzy of Bangkok. Even in the "cool" season, the temperature in the Thai capital - the hottest city in the world, according to the World Meteorological Organisation - rarely dips below 30C.

By contrast, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lanna, 700km away and 350m above sea level, is only a fraction of the size and far more relaxed. It's easy to amble around and a haven for hippies, round-the-world-travel burn-out victims and New Agers on massage courses.

Founded in the 13th century, the city has a distinctive square-walled centre, surrounded by a moat and more than 120 Buddhist temples (wats) within the municipal limits. It's long been a trading centre and home to craftsmen working in pottery, weaving, silverwork and wood-carving. So there are plenty of places to pick up a bargain, especially at the night bazaar: an orgy of cut-price clothes, wooden games, cushions, carvings and trinkets. There are also, like everywhere in Thailand, hundreds of places to eat.

One of the first things you notice on the streets of any town here is what's available at the food stalls - you never seem to be more than a stone's throw away from one. Your instinct from years of exposure to Domestos ads is to give them a wide berth, but if you do, you're missing out on some of the best snack food - in fact food, full stop - that you'll ever eat: satay, honey-dipped chicken or spring rolls, each served with a big handful of holy basil and mint; pad thai; curries; mango; banana fritters; chilled coconut milk with blobs of coloured and flavoured tapioca jelly; parcels of banana leaves filled with sweet floury stuff; and dozens of other mysterious delicacies.

Thai ingenuity has also given birth to the most eco-friendly food-on-the-move: sticky rice with sesame seeds or black beans cooked in coconut milk and baked inside a bamboo stem that you peel down as you want it. And it's the ideal way to wander around, snacking as you go, taking in the wats, browsing in the shops and gawping at all the sweaty pink farangs (Westerners) with their attractive Thai lady friends.

If your budget is very tight or if walking for six or seven hours a day with a heavy bag on your back in 35C heat is your thing, the best way to get a feel for the surrounding countryside is to sign up with a tour and stay in an indigenous hill-tribe village by night - you can do that at a travel agent, or the cheaper hotels, at which it may almost seem compulsory. If you've got only a few days in the north, and have a less masochistic temperament, it's better to book a tour in advance. Tour operators can offer a short trip with a driver and a guide that takes in hill-tribe villages, temples, markets and local industries, as well as teaching you to cook while you're about it, much of it in inaccessible country.

Travelling in air-conditioned luxury, with doors opened for you as you speed off to your next set of indigenous peoples or cultural hot spots may seem not far short of being transported by natives on a sedan chair. But you have the attention of a guide who lives in the area and can talk about the local agricultural economy, perhaps, or give you a Thai perspective on monarchy - or muse on why farangs have big noses.

The other way to see the countryside without breaking into a sweat is on the back of a motorbike, which are available everywhere for about 200 baht (under £3) per day. Forget your inhibitions and take to the road as the Thais do. OK, not quite as the Thais do, since you probably won't be carrying a pneumatic drill, caged birds and your entire family on a 80cc semi-automatic.

We stayed two nights at Lanna Farm, a tranquil traditionally built teak-wood retreat 100km north of Chiang Mai and close to the small market town of Phrao. Two accommodation blocks on stilts stand in lush gardens, in the heart of a valley surrounded by emerald-green paddy fields and tropical orchards, set against a backdrop of the mountain border with Burma. The accommodation is simple (no air conditioning), but very comfortable, although the walls between the rooms seem to be only one plank thick, which may mean that if, say, you're next door to a verbally incontinent French couple, you'll hear their every murmur and shrug. Breakfast and dinner are eaten on a verandah just outside the rooms, sitting on cushions in front of low tables.

The food, of course, was fresh and delicious. Up here in the mountains is one of the few places where the temperatures drop sharply at night (the Bangkok Post had a front-page report on a nearby reservoir that, shockingly, actually had ice on it). So, in the cool season (December-March), bring something warm.

Within a short distance of Lanna Farm there are villages of five of the six hill tribes of the region. Some people are uneasy at the idea of visiting the villages, fearing that it reduces these communities to a tourist attraction. While there's probably some truth in that - and while visiting it's important to be sensitive and not, for example, take photos without asking - the villagers do rely on the income they make selling locally made products. What's more, the villages aren't homogeneous throwbacks to a more ancient time.

In the first we visited (the Akha), they wore traditional costume, chewed betel nut and used hand looms. Mangy dogs ran around excitedly, and black beans dried in the sun. Around the wooden houses, built on stilts, grew many of the ingredients central to Thai cuisine - holy basil, Thai aubergines, makrut limes and tamarinds.

By contrast, in a Lisu village further down the valley, many of the locals had been converted to Christianity by American missionaries, and were noisily watching television. Others were smoking intimidating home-made stogies in a bar (I declined politely).

On the way back from the hill-tribe villages, we visited the market at Phrao. The food on display is almost overwhelming - piles of dried fish, perfect domes of shrimp paste, bags of chillies, galangal, lemon grass and limes.

So now to making it. The virtue is that - if you have the ingredients - Thai food is relatively quick and easy. Or that's the theory. One morning at Lanna, we were taken in hand by the hotel's omnilingual manager. It was a low-key introduction, in the kitchens themselves, while the real chefs made lunch for the imminent arrival of a coach-party of French tourists in Thailand on a grand tour of the former colonies of Indo-Chine - Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The dishes we made were traditional khantoke style, plus some Thai food that is available all over the country and now standard fare back home, although you may never want to eat it again after trying the real thing. We made tom yum kung (hot and sour prawn soup), a green curry and a pork stir-fry. Best of all, we were initiated into the secrets of crisp spring rolls - those often soggy or over-greasy parcels. And it was a relaxed approach. No palm sugar? Brown sugar is just as good. No tamarind? You'll get away with lemon juice, which helps when miles from an Asian supermarket.

By contrast with the low-key introduction at Lanna, the cookery school at the Four Seasons in Mae Rim, just outside Chiang Mai, is a pristine, purpose-built temple to cooking; staffed, like the rest of the resort, by fastidiously diligent employees. The courses are run by Pitak, a world-travelled chef. You learn about the different types of noodle and their uses, the spices, the regional variations in Thai food. This was the Baroque school of cooking: the pad Thai alone needed 27 ingredients, including a net made from quick-fried duck and chicken eggs.

The resort is a paradise of immaculate gardens with 64 "pavilions" housed in two-storey clusters of four rooms, each with their own sala - an outdoor seating area. The rooms are spacious and suitably luxurious.

If you're a visiting plutocrat and mere luxury isn't enough, you can book an entire residence (there are 16). Most of the pavilions back on to a working paddy field, with mountains artfully in the background (admire the workers in their uniforms; see the buffalo walk by after a day's work).

In case you begin to wonder if it's all a little too, well, Disney, the handbook points out that the harvest goes to a local charity. The resort has it all - two swimming-pools, a spa, library, tennis club and bars - and there are two orchid farms within 100m of the gate for the more daring. And I may have mentioned the country's food a couple of times before, but the resort's restaurant has some of the finest you'll eat. The Chiang Mai noodles are worth the journey alone. The Four Seasons has perfected a level of luxury that tempts some of the inmates never to leave the resort. But you have to steel yourself, even if just for the 20-minute air-conditioned journey in the minivan into the centre of Chiang Mai and the night bazaar. Just one more round of souvenir buying. And, of course, another snack from a food stand.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Mark Wilson flew as a guest of British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), which has frequent non-stop flights from Heathrow to Bangkok - as does Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; www.thaiairways.com), Eva Air (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com) and Qantas (0845 774 7767; www.qantas.com). Phuket Air (0870 774 5450; www.phuketairlines.com) flies non-stop from Gatwick. If you're flying from outside London, there are easy connections at Amsterdam (KLM), Paris (Air France), Frankfurt (Lufthansa) or Dubai (Emirates). Many tour operators offer inclusive holidays. Mark Wilson's trip was organised by Magic of the Orient (01293 537700; www.magicoftheorient.com).

STAYING THERE

The Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai (00 66 53 298 181; www.fourseasons.com) has doubles for $515 (£270) with breakfast.

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