Beyond Pad Thai

A Chiang Mai market vendor's artful display. (Pam Davies/QMI Agency)

A Chiang Mai market vendor's artful display. (Pam Davies/QMI Agency)

PAM DAVIES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:54 PM ET

Whew! Thailand's hot, and I'm not talking about the temperature.

Bangkok -- the capital -- is one hip, hot and scintillating place to be. It's a city that never stops, and seems to never sleep.

Then there's the heat I thought might pose the biggest challenge -- the famed hot, spicy Thai cuisine. But to my surprise, acclimatization and adaptation take place quickly as this humid tropical country and its food seep into your soul. Besides, they say spicy food is good for the circulation.

The country has splendid temples, serene Buddhas, the magnificent Grand Palace and so on, but my visit was an experience of epicurean proportions -- a scrumptious blend of incredibly varied cuisine, cooking classes and culture.

Thailand has much to offer those willing to abandon their Western ways -- at least for a little while. I went with the misconceptions of one whose Thai food experience was a love for Pad Thai, widely available in multicultural Toronto (surely our city's diversity would provide all the background I needed?).

Well that, as it turns out, was only a prelude for the culinary enlightenment awaiting during cooking sessions with three professional chefs. It is said a good Thai chef can combine all five food tastes -- sour, sweet, bitter, salty and spicy hot -- in one dish. During my visit I had the privilege of witnessing just how it's done.

Food here is dramatically exotic, exciting, immediate and memorable.

My favourite memories include a jar of fermented whiskey labelled King Cobra at the classy Naj Exquisite Thai Cuisine, a Bangkok restaurant with an aristocratic heritage. While there I enjoyed a beautiful drink made from roselle (hibiscus) herb.

Bizarre fare on a menu in Chinatown gave our group a chuckle -- stewed whole turtle, goat skin and goose's (sic) feet. Oh, and jelly fish is tasty, I'm told.

And I'll always remember Tha Rue, a seafood restaurant at a pier about 26 km from Bangkok. In this simple workingman's eatery we slurped and savoured a feast of freshly caught oysters paired with Thai ingredients that delayed a burst of fireworks on our tongues.

Thailand has had its challenges. But now that last spring's political unrest seems to have settled down, it would be a shame not to take advantage of the beauty, the wonderful people, and the reasonable costs available to visitors in this remarkable country.

For me, Thai tourism has entered a whole new delicious realm and my mouth is watering remembering each unique experience.

If you go to Thailand

COOKING SCHOOLS

-- Marriott Manohra Luxury Cruises also provides dining cruises and overnight accommodation. See bangkok.com/thai-cooking-class/marriott.htm.

-- Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai. You don't need to be a guest to take the class. See fourseasons.com/chiangmai/cooking_school.

-- Amita Thai Cooking Class. See amitathaicooking.com.

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific Airways has flights to Thailand with one stopover in Hong Kong. See cathaypacific.com/ca for details on discounted fares and the airline's new contest -- Travel the World in 80 Days with Cathay Pacific.

MORE INFORMATION

-- For information on all aspects of travel to Thailand, contact Tourism Thailand at tourismthailand.org.

-- For information on accommodations, contact Grande Centre Point Hotel at bangkok.com/grande-centre-point-ratchadamri; Le Bua, lebua.com/en/lebua-at-state-tower; and Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, mandarinoriental.com/chiangmai.


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