Below are some of my published pieces of writing for magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times Style Magazine and Bloomberg Businessweek Middle East. For more samples of my published work, you may kindly access my online portfolio HERE.
Chiang Mai: Of culture, coffee and contrasts
Published in T Qatar: The New York Times Style Magazine
From carefully preserved relics of some of the oldest Buddhist temples in northern Thailand, to kitschy tattoos and hip coffee shops, Chiang Mai offers something unique for curious backpackers and culture connoisseurs alike.
By Priyanka Pradhan Photographs: Lavanya Ullas
Download the PDF version HERE
Our 12-coach train leaves Bangkok’s bustling Hua Lamphong Station with a loud groan, slowly leaving behind the mayhem of the city’s sleepless streets. Traffic lights, strobe lights and neon lights whiz past the windows, fading into gradual darkness as the overnight journey to Chiang Mai begins. By breakfast, it feels more like time travel than a ten-hour trip. The crisp mountain air and idyllic, wayside railway stations greet victims of raucous nights at Khao San Road, promising a refreshing change of scene from Bangkok.
Outside the Chiang Mai Railway station, a bevy of striking red, fire-truck styled local taxis stand waiting for the stream of tourists that arrive every morning.
“Which hotel you go?” taxi drivers ask, scurrying to find their first customers for the day. I observe how the hotel’s name is enough for taxi drivers to tell exactly where I need to go. No GPS needed in a town that seems to be on first name basis with each other, I guess.
As the taxi drives past the old town, scenes from nearly 700 years ago seem to come alive. The town is surrounded by a moat and a defensive wall built by Chiang Mai’s last ruling Lanna dynasty in the 13th Century AD, to keep Burmese invaders and Mongols from entering. As we drive along the circumference of the moat, I wonder how such a shallow moat was able to keep an entire army from entering the city. However, according to a local legend, this seemingly innocuous moat was filled with deep waters and ferocious crocodiles at the time. Eventually, the city did come under attack from the Burmese army, who established their own kingdom in Chiang Mai the 16th Century AD. The Lanna Kingdom’s walls may have partially collapsed since, but the four majestic gates of the kingdom are immaculately restored. These gates serve as important landmarks for directions in the town even today, giving me a distinct feeling of being lost in a time warp in this slow-moving, historic town.
A walk down a few winding by-lanes makes me snap back to the present.
“Free Wi-Fi and coffee”, “Home-grown, organic coffee HERE”, “Become a certified barista” boards welcome me into a lane, choc-a bloc with banners outside well- manicured gardens and landscaped outdoor sit-outs. A whiff of freshly brewed coffee, cigarette smoke and hot pancakes is enough to entice me into one of these coffee shops along the way. My fancy, latte-art laden coffee arrives as I begin to wonder where the old-world charm of the town has suddenly vanished.
“This is small town with a very urban, or say, say hipster vibe,” says the Thai coffee shop owner, who introduces himself as Nico. “Chiang Mai is multicultural, full of interesting contrasts and is very tourist-friendly… you can find the best cuisine from Italian to Mexican, catered to more than four million tourists that arrive every year.”
He adds, “You know, local Thai people here don’t enjoy coffee. Most of the coffee produced in the country is either consumed as instant coffee or exported as the same. This ‘local, freshly-brewed coffee’ culture is purely tourist-led and has started to thrive only in the past 5 years. Infact, today Chiang Mai has the highest density of coffee shops in all of Thailand.”
There’s a strong rationale behind this trend. Thailand produces two kinds of coffee- the Robusta, which grows in Southern Thailand, contributing to 98 percent of the coffee produced in the country and the Arabica, which is grown in Chiang Mai and the neighboring Chiang Rai regions, which contributes only 2 percent of the total produce. According to him, in Chiang Mai, this coffee shop trend can be attributed to the exceptional quality, soft textures, low acidity and pleasant floral notes of the locally produced Arabica beans.
In an attempt to cash in on the strong coffee sub-culture, even Starbucks set up its towering two-storey shops across town. When I quiz Nico about competition from the global giant, he asks innocently, “Do they make coffee? Really? I thought they only sell cups of milk.” He shares a laugh with his barista.
On stepping outside, I found that the green-and-white Starbucks logos do stand out among the modest buildings in Chiang Mai. In stark contrast, local settlements are simple, unassuming and functional, still built in the Lanna style of architecture. These homes, called, ‘Ruen Ka-lae’ are similar to traditional Thai houses, except that these are constructed entirely from teak wood and built elevated from the ground to protect from flooding.
The 300 temples in Chiang Mai prominently feature intricate teak wood carvings, just like the Lanna homes. However, another unique feature that begs for attention is the serpentine element in these temples. According to Thai mythology, serpents known as ‘nagas’ had served the Buddha faithfully and hence deserve a significant place in Thai architecture, particularly in the Northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The nagas appear on the arches, along the tiers of temple roof and especially on carved staircases as seen in two very important temples in Chiang Mai- the Wat Chedi Luang and the Wat Lok Molee.
At Wat Lok Molee, which was first mentioned in a charter in 1367 AD, Nagas are seen decorated along the tiers of temple roofs, which according to a Buddhist legend, are meant to represent the cosmic river of life source.
The skillfully constructed naga staircase, seen at Wat Chedi Luang speaks of another legend – The Naga shape carved stairs symbolize the three ladders that mythically link earth to heaven. This temple was the tallest building in the Lanna Kingdom at the time of completion in mid 15th century AD, and even housed the mystical and much revered Emerald Buddha (originally found in 43 BC in the Indian city of Patna) in its prime.
Fascinated by these ancient legends of the Lanna dynasty, I make my way to the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center for a deeper insight into the kingdom, through music and folk dance. Taking center stage are the classical dances from Chiang Mai, collectively called ‘Fawn Thai’ which include the graceful ‘Silk Weaving’ dance and the more famous ‘Fawn Lep’ or the Finger Nail dance. Another spectacular tradition is the Lanna sword dance (Fawn Lap) performed to music from two famous Thai stringed instruments, the Seung and the Pin Pia. The male dancers balance a number of swords on different parts of their bodies while fighting off their rival with a sword sheath– a feat that defended Chiang Mai against their enemies for centuries.
A short, red-truck taxi ride and what seems like another time warp away is the trendy neighborhood of Nimmanhaemin, where hip, young locals step out for a drink or two. Packed with tattoo and piercing studios, upscale pubs playing Thai pop music, fashion boutiques and posh bookstores, the crowd here is almost exclusively Thai and unmistakably moneyed. In a contrast to this, are the intersecting lanes of the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, which are a lot more inclusive and thronged by tourists that happily embrace the synchronized chaos, seedy bars and wheeler-dealers of everything from T-shirts to mind-bending experiences.
Nightlife wraps up early, though. So much so that even the ubiquitous and generally reliable 7- Eleven convenience stores won’t serve certain beverages after midnight. Surprising, for such a backpacker-friendly town but somehow it makes sense too, considering that locals are making an effort to prevent this town from turning into yet another party haven.
Chaing Mai seems to offer something for everyone. Adventure and thrill-seekers go zip-lining or trekking in the forest canopies near-by, while wildlife enthusiasts can spend a day bonding with Thai elephants at rescue centers and culture buffs may visit one of the many hill-tribe villages in and around the city. Except for someone looking for a fun night on the town, who’d probably find himself juggling shots of espresso at a rad little coffee shop instead.
Chiang Mai International Airport is well connected via 17 international airlines.
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai: 700 kms
10 hour train ride either overnight or during the day
70 minutes by air
11 hours by bus.
Where to stay:
Yindee Guest House, Ratvithi Rd (Old town)
Spicy Thai, Nimmanhaemin road.
History On A Plate
Published in Conde Nast Traveller Middle East, July 2015
On a road trip to the culinary capital of the Philippines, PRIYANKA PRADHAN gets a glimpse into the past as she samples everything from cricket salad to seafood stew and market-fresh mangoes.
Download the PDF version HERE
Are you going to eat that?” A curious tourist at my table asked, as my cricket (kamaru) salad arrived in style, dressed in jelly and salted egg, and garnished with hand-rolled cheese. This, along with river shrimp in guava soup and papaya with sticky rice, made up part of a seven-course, re-invented menu fromPampanga, Central Luzon, a province known as the culinary capital of the Philippines.
I was dining at Casa Roces (0063-2-735 5896, casaroces.com), a refurbished Spanish ancestral home-turned-restaurant in an upscale part of Manila, right across from the Malacañan Palace. Run by the Center for Culinary Arts
(CCA). Casa Roces attempts to introduce Filipino food to the global palate by tweaking and creatively enhancing traditional recipes.
“Our cuisine is perhaps the most underappreciated of all Southeast Asian cuisines,”says Chef Sau del Rosario, culinary director of the CCA and a Pampanga native. “And so far, even we’ve believed that our food is so distinct and unique that it won’t appeal to non- Filipinos. But now we’re getting creative to allow the world a peek into our kitchen.”
Inspired by this sentiment, I set out on a road trip from Manila to Pampanga, vowing to eat anything that was put on my plate. My first stop was at the colossal 12,000sqm Araneta Center Farmers’ Market (0063-2-911-3101), for an introduction to local ingredients such as the lemon zest or souring agent calamansi, as well as succulent palm heart, bitter melon fruit and arguably the sweetest variety of mango in the world. The market was a melting pot of sights and aromas: different types of eel (palos) – a local favourite – on display alongside stingray and dried fish (balad).
A pot of blood soup (dinuguan) arrived at my table at the market’s indoor stretch of restaurants. Admittedly squeamish but equally intrigued, I picked bibingka (sweetened rice cake served with grated coconut), papaitan (goat’s intestines) and a serving of dried fish to wash down with my blood soup – a meal for those unperturbed by questionable breath.
The soup was delectable, despite its gorysounding ingredient: sweet and sour with fresh chillies that gave it a depth of flavour.
While blood is not uncommon in other Southeast Asian cuisines (nam tok soup in central Thailand or the Taiwanese blood cakes,for example), the Filipino dinuguan can be distinguished by its strong vinegary aftertaste.
Forty-one kilometers north of Manila city,I found myself in the quiet, dusty countryside surrounding the historic town of Malolos in the Bulacan province. Jeepneys and cycles trudged along at an unhurried pace and the red-tile roofs of local homes seemed to glisten in the sun. At the end of a winding street, the neoclassical Bautista Mansion beckoned with the promise of war tales, relics from the country’s prei-ndependence era and a sumptuous lunch.
Built in the 1850s, the Bautista Mansion is now run by historian and antique collector Dez Bautista and is open to the public. A visit to the grand mansion offers a chance to dine in the same room that Philippines’ national hero José Rizal did just before he was arrested for attempting to garner support for his revolution against Spanish colonial rule. In addition to a slice of history, the kitchen serves up an array of curated heirloom recipes, passed down four generations of the Bautistas. A mouthwatering homemade meal of Sta Veronica Birang – a distinctive preparation involving small pieces of fish or meat, diced vegetables and cheese wrapped together, breaded and fried – and a lovely chat with the charming Bautista took care of both curiosity and hunger.
“The women of Malolos invented this dish during the revolution,” he told me. “It was accessible, took 20 minutes to make and had very inexpensive ingredients. It’s due to its simplicity that the dish has survived till today.” A short walk from the Bautista Mansion lies the Casa Real de Malolos, a museum dedicated to the 21 Women of Malolos, who fought for their right to higher education during Spanish rule. Learning to make traditional tea time snacks and intricate cutwork wrappers for confectionery called borlas de pastillas offered an insight into the life and times of working-class women in the Philippines during the 1800s.
Pampanga was my final stop on the road. An inland province, it is known for its freshwater delicacies – especially frog, mole cricket and lizard – used in ancient traditional dishes that have survived the test of time. Life in this province is so closely linked with gastronomy that the kitchen is the largest and most important room in the typical Pampanga house. With Spanish, Mexican, Cantonese and Malay influences, Pampanga’s cuisine has a unique set of flavours. Some of the delicacies that originated here include biringyi (chicken in saffron rice) and tidtad itik (duck stew), born out of the multicultural exchange.
At the culinary museum in Angeles City,Museo Ning Angeles (0063-45-887 4703), Chef Atching Lillian Borromeo explained how some of the region’s most iconic dishes were accidental inventions or born out of necessity:
“In the days of colonial rule there was no cement to build houses, so egg white was used as a substitute. As a result, egg yolk was a byproduct and given away free at churches. The women of Pampanga began experimenting with yolks in different ways in the kitchen – giving birth to the 250-year-old recipe for eggyolk biscuits: Panecillos de San Nicolas.”
For my last supper in the culinary capital, I made my way to Bale Dutung (0063-45-888 5163), home of Pampanga’s artist-chef-writer Claude Tayag who, on occasion, opens his home to the public for a sampling of his specially curated menus. While the sea urchin with mochi (rice cakes) and bringhe talangka (rice cakes with crab roe) were crowd favourites, from his 11-course menu, a surprise lay in the kare kareng lamang dagat.
“Did you know this dish – seafood cooked in a peanut-based sauce – was inspired by the Indian curry?” he asked
the gathered diners. “When the British army occupied Manila and Pampanga, they brought with them 500 Indian sepoys from the East India Company. These soldiers stayed back after the clash between the British and the Spanish and settled down in the Pampanga region, lending their culinary influence to Filipino food, seen in dishes such as kare kareng lamang dagat and biryingi, the latter of which is inspired by the Indian biryani.”
With a story behind every dish and a history that’s checkered with the spoils of war and cultural exchange, Filipino cuisine has an important legacy to carry forward. A large part of the cuisine could be considered an acquired taste, suited to adventurous foodies and travellers. Yet even for the more tentative taster, a plate of adobo or the curiously named, fruity halo-halo dessert will do the trick.
And to answer the wide-eyed tourist’s question about my elaborately dressed cricket salad – I didn’t just eat it, I did so with relish.