It is 4pm and Mrs. Pa is setting up her smoothie cart at Chiang Mai gate. The light is beginning to change and the starlings are in the trees, waiting to swoop in wide circles around the moat at dusk. Mrs. Pa sets up here daily after a morning visit to the markets to buy from her preferred fruit vendors. Muang Noi Market for most of the fresh produce, Samoeng for strawberries. She makes her own sugar water, claiming that the stuff you can buy is just not good enough for the loving care she requires. There are many reasons that Mrs. Pa is the best smoothie cart in Chiang Mai, but care and attention are certainly two of them.
When I came to live in Chiang Mai in 2011, friends and I would sit for hours at her stall, watching her work and listening to her unselfconscious laugh echoing like a bell. I pitched my then-editor at CNN Travel asking if could write about her, wanting to learn more about her life and story. He agreed, and in 2011 I wrote a piece about her smoothie cart for CNNGo (now CNN Travel). To write it, I shadowed her for several days, joining her at the morning market and learning more about her life. We talked about her former job in an office, before a friend gifted her the smoothie cart she now uses daily. I watched many of the same customers come back every night, drawn in by that infectious laugh and her bright smile.
By the time I left in 2011, I thought I would be back the next year. But I ended up finding a home in Saigon and spending my winters eating there instead. Late last fall I returned to Chiang Mai and surprised her at the stall after several years away. She was mid smoothie-blending when she looked up and saw me, yelled my name and ran over with a fierce and wondrous hug. It was a lovely reunion.
You never really know the impact of your words on someone’s business. Though this site is far smaller than a Lonely Planet or another guide, CNN’s is not. And I wondered, might I have done her a disservice by writing about her and her story? So I asked to meet with her again, with the help of a lovely Thai woman named Nam, to follow up with a few questions about her business.
Interview with Mrs. Pa, mid-smoothie
How has your business changed since 2011?
I have many more customers now, many who have read the article you wrote. At the beginning, many brought me the article on their phones and showed it to me, asking if I am the same person. Some tourists arrive at the airport and come here directly, they say!
I have a bigger cart now — I was able to invest in one since sales were higher. And I am also able to get better quality fruit and use them in my smoothies.
I am really happy to be busy. I have been able to put my kids through school because of how busy the stall has been, and I have tried to save what I can to eventually be able to buy a house.
The business has also changed because of how many Chinese tourists have come over here to Thailand. I have learned some Mandarin by asking them the words for the fruit, and can communicate with them a bit when they order. It makes a big difference.
How are Chinese tourists different from us falang (white foreigner) tourists?
They care more about the price than if the smoothie is tasty. You come and ask me for the best combinations, and what fruits are good today or not. Often they immediately come and ask how much.
(As if to illustrate a group of Chinese tourists comes up to ask about the price, then asks what to drink. Mrs Pa looks at me with a knowing smile. After their smoothies have been delivered, I herd them all behind the cart and take a big group photo. “This happens all the time”, Mrs. Pa says head thrown back and laughing.)
Do you miss the office environment you used to work in?
With a grimace, “No!”
How do you know what is best to mix together?
I have bought books on Ayurvedic medicine and food combinations, studied the way that fruits go together. If people ask for a combination I think will be bad I will tell them. I will make it for them if they insist but I will tell them first! I choose what is in season and won’t buy fruit that day if the quality isn’t what I want.
Do you want to expand your cart into a franchise?
No, I am very happy with this one cart. I can work for myself. If I am sick, I can close the cart for the night and know that it is only me who is affected (along with my customers, unfortunately!) I like the flexibility and being a solo business.
Chiang Mai Gate night food market
While interviewing Mrs. Pa I also wanted to use the opportunity to ask about the set up for the night food market itself. How do they decide which cart goes where? Who pays for electricity? How much is the rent for the space? Where are the carts stored at night?
If, like me, you are curious about all of these things, the answers were:
- The carts are stored in an alleyway not far from Chiang Mai gate, and the vendors either wheel them into the gate area themselves, or pay someone to do it for them.
- The electricity is run from cart to cart, with a small reader on a tree at the edge of the moat. Each cart pays for the electricity it uses.
- There is no access to running water for the food carts.
- Each street stall pays a fee for garbage every day, but no fixed rent for the space. That said, to get a space in the first place, you have to petition the local authorities and, per Mrs. Pa, “the list is closed now.” So what you see is what you get!
- The actual location of the carts is dictated by that list. This was in contrast to my expectation of these street carts duking it out for the best spot in the market but alas, it’s far more simple than a turf war!
A happy entrepreneur
I’ve been back to Mrs. Pa’s repeatedly during the last few weeks, and have had a chance to bring some new friends to her stall as well. Her memory is impeccable for the old ones too; when I showed up one night she exclaimed “Jod-eeeeee” and pointed at my friend Kevin, who I used to smoothie with in 2011. Not only does she remember the fruits you like to eat, but she also keeps track of who you drank them with, years down the line.
When I ask customers why they come back, many cite her warmth and smiles. Of course her smoothies are absolutely delicious, and she knows the combinations to make them even better. A pinch of salt to bring out the sweetness of the strawberries, some ginger if you have fever, and other loving touches that make her stall special. But her personality is a good part of what makes the experience so wonderful.
“People like that I’m happy,” she tells me before turning back to blend a new combination of fruit, “because I am doing what I want to do. Just like you.”
Where to find Mrs. Pa: At Chiang Mai (south) gate, just across from the 7-11. She has a red and white cart with Mrs. Pa’s Fruit Shake written on the outside. Open 4pm-10pm daily except Sunday. Smoothies 25 baht.