Thai Market (Helen Moat)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 11 May

The Great Toad Escape of Chiang Mai

Shuffling around her local farmers' market with a broken wrist reminds Helen Moat of a very different market in the north of Thailand

I should be cycling SUSTRAN’s Route 6 through the Midlands of England right now. But I’m not. My arm's in plaster and my movements are limited – and gripping the handle bars of my bicycle’s not one of them. I could weep.

Tomorrow I have an appointment with a local hospital. Maybe I’ll find out if I can cycle to Istanbul. Maybe not. What’s frustrating is that it’s all out of my hands. The doctors will tell me my fate. But if there’s any way I can do it, I’ll be on that bike to the Hook of Holland and on to Turkey.

In the meantime, I’m not travelling much further than my nearest town, Chesterfield. On the second Thursday of the month the farmers' market takes place there. Waves of stripy tarpaulin stretch across the large square. There are buckets of fish, fresh vegetables: cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes dusted in earth; all the usual kinds of stuff. There are not-quite-ripe strawberries and tomatoes, pineapples and rosy apples. It’s fairly limited fare, and I think back to the market I visited last summer in Chiang Mai. Thais are much more resourceful and adventurous when it comes to food. This is the story of what happened at a market just outside the city, and it still makes me smile when I think about it …

 “This is something you have to see,” John our guide told us on the way back to Chiang Mai from Lampang. He jumped down off the van onto the roadside verge and waved at the group to follow him.

We entered a warm, muted underworld of stalls on the roadside. The dark coverings of tarpaulin gave the market a cave-like feel. Farmers' straw hats, serving as lampshades, dangled from wooden beams, one side of the rim cut out to let the light through. Flies crawled around the dusty bulbs, eyeing the food below.

Our eyes adjusted to the dimness and took in the food displays. Jeez. For us Westerners it felt as if we’d entered some kind of foody freak show. For the Thais, the market was filled with the freshest, most nutritious, flavoursome and textured food, rich in protein and vitamins. We passed by heaps of cockroaches, grasshoppers, locusts and silkworm larva; great wheels of honey comb and wasp’s nests peppered with grubs.

Continuing into the belly of the market, my eyes widened. This was something I hadn’t seen before: bird stomachs with their contents still in place; cow placentas; intestines; dried, fried and flayed frog; and shelled boiled eggs containing tiny pink-veined embryos curled up in translucent egg white.  

But it was the clear cellophane bags of toads that made me linger. They lay there in the bags, lifeless, piled on top of each other like an amphibian mass grave. As I stared at the toads, one of them suddenly moved. Holy moly. It looked at me accusingly with its bulging eye, ugly as sin, all protruding forehead and gritty, lumpy skin, its mouth turned down like a curmudgeonly old man. It was then I saw each bag had two straws poking through the top: all the toads were alive. 

“My father used to catch toads in the paddy fields,” John grinned. “Sometimes I catch small ones and keep them in tanks until they are big enough to eat. They’re good in soups and stews.”

Thirteen year old Finn took John aside. They stood there deep in discussion until Finn finally handed over some baht in exchange for a bag of toads. I was intrigued as Finn was more of a burger and chips kind of boy than a connoisseur of Thai cuisine.

Leaving the market, we continued on our journey. But not much further on, John stopped the van again and disappeared into a roadside field with Finn and his toads. The rest of us followed curiously. What had John and Finn planned? An impromptu toad barbecue? Now that would be something.

Finn walked to the edge of the paddy field. “Make a wish,” John said to him. Finn nodded, opened his bag and… gently shook the toads out onto the grass. 

At first the toads stayed clumped together, unmoving. Then, realising they were free, crawled off one by one towards the wetlands. As they disappeared into the water, we took in the hills and trees mirrored perfectly between the fresh rice shoots.

At last John broke the silence. “Good karma,” he said with approval. Finn smiled, satisfied that his job was done: He’d saved the toads.

Here’s hoping that some good karma wings my way.