Chiang Mai was very different from Bangkok, and not just in its northern food. The differences became apparent the moment we landed and our hotel picked us up. The ride from the airport to the hotel did not feature any traffic, and took about five minutes, a nice change from the 45-minute stop-and-go trip we had just had in Bangkok. This proved an apt symbol of the differences between the two cities. Though the drivers were no less aggressive or insane, Chiang Mai was much smaller and more parochial. As a result, it was much easier for us to get around, especially compared to Bangkok.
But oddly, in central Chiang Mai, the ratio of Westerners to natives was much higher than in central Bangkok. Chiang Mai is apparently an expat center, which was surprising and a little unsettling. Here, deep in the hills, 370 miles from Bangkok, how did a thriving expat community develop? The concentration was especially stark at trivia night at U.N. Irish Pub, which was in English and didn't seem to have a single Thai contestant. There is apparently also a push to make Chiang Mai a conference destination in southeast Asia, which was evident at our rather large, corporate-feeling hotel.
As a result of this community, as well as the strong tourist trade, Chiang Mai had something of a Disney World feeling to it. Nearly every business in the city, including our cooking school, every restaurant we went to, the many bars around town, the night bazaar, and even the wine cart we enjoyed, is predicated on the influx of dollars from Europe and America. The string of go-go bars near our hotel was not fueled by locals needing to blow off some steam.
This made it a little harder for us to explore northern Thai cuisine, since most visitors don't want it, preferring the Thai food they know from ethnic restaurants back home. Of course, we still managed to find it (and we ended up concurring with the rest of our tourist companions in our preferences), but its presence was much more muted than I would have expected.
Our trips outside Chiang Mai gave me much better insight into life in most of Thailand, outside its large cities. In Chiang Mai's case, unlike sprawling Bangkok, we barely needed to leave the city limits to find ourselves in an extremely rural, underdeveloped area. As we wound our way through the mountains around Chiang Mai, we passed through areas formerly dominated by the opium trade, which has been all but eradicated by a program run by the central government to sponsor the growing of less socially harmful crops. Eating culture in the hills didn't seem too disparate from that in the cities — we saw many of the same street-side restaurants made of plastic chairs and a wok.
Northern Thailand was very different than Bangkok in pace and scale, but many of the same elements remained. Delicious food still thrust itself at us, sometimes literally, at every street corner. But, especially in Chiang Mai, I felt the sense of needing to escape the tourist influence whenever possible. I never felt that way in Bangkok, where it was much easier to do without even trying.