We spent five days in Chiang Mai, the hub of Northern Thailand. The city is located in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains and sits at about 1000 ft above sea level, providing some relief from the heat we experienced in other parts of Thailand. The center of town is an old city, which used to be entirely surrounded by a brick wall. Now just parts of the wall which have been restored remain, but the moat remains intact.
One of the things we enjoyed most during our time here was the cooking class we took with Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School. There are numerous cooking schools in Chiang Mai; we chose this one because it came recommended by a couple from Boulder who recently did an around the world trip (I don’t know them personally, but was given their blog site by a coworker at Vail Resorts. It would be nice to meet them when we get back!).
The class took place on the owner’s farm, about 20 minutes outside the city. Before driving out there, our teacher Airry took us to the local market where he showed us how to buy the different ingredients and how each is used. He pointed out which ingredients are difficult to find outside of Thailand and what can be used as substitutes (which will be very helpful when we use the cookbook they provided to try to recreate the dishes at home).
Interesting fact…all of the rices above are the same type (with one exception). What makes them different is the region where they are from, and the further away, the more expensive (due to transportation costs).
Once at the farm, Airry gave us a tour of the grounds and we were able to see, smell, and touch the different ingredients in their natural environment. He showed us a field of rice and were shocked to find out just how large of an area is required to yield one bowl of rice. Rice uses over half of the farmable land area and labor force in Thailand.
After the farm tour, we headed to the kitchen and started cooking! We each had our own cutting station and cooking station. We got to decide which dishes we wanted to learn to cook. We chose different items so that between the two of us we would have a good variety.
Joann: Papaya Salad, Pad Thai, Tom Yum Soup, Penang Curry, Deep Fried Banana
Jay: Spring Roll, Cashew Chicken, Tom Kha Gai Soup, Green Curry, Mango Sticky Rice
One of the most enjoyable parts of the day was eating everything we cooked and not having to do any of the dishes! And it was nice and relaxing to be out on the farm, away from the bustle of the city. It was also fun getting to know Airry and gaining some insight into to local culture through him. At 6′ 4″, he’s by far the tallest Thai person we’ve met! Pretty interesting guy too – he lived in Australia for 10 yrs (so his English was very good), played basketball professionally there, and his all-time favorite basketball player is Scottie Pippen! Just before our cooking class, he had taken time off work to be a monk for a couple weeks. He explained to us that in Thailand, you are allowed to take time off work every few years to do this if you choose and that most all Thai men spend time as a monk at least once in their life.
Buddhism is everywhere in Thailand. The city of Chiang Mai alone has over 300 Buddhist temples. One night while we were in Chiang Mai, we went to one of the temples while the monks were chanting. This was a new experience for us. It was a continuous stream of rhythmic sounds in just two pitches.
Also prevalent in Thailand are night markets. The one is Chiang Mai was pretty impressive. It spread on for seemingly endless city blocks. Stand after stand of local goods mixed in with all sorts of knock off products (e.g. $3 “Ray-Ban” sunglasses), loads of food and drinks for purchase, and live entertainment. We watched a group of kids break dance and they were quite good!
It seemed like a perpetual weekend in Chiang Mai – something was always going on. We happened to be there during the annual Thailand national games which were held in Chiang Mai this year. We saw a beauty contest one night, a body builder competition another night, and the finals for some sport we had never seen or heard of before. And then just as we were leaving town, they were setting up for the Chiang Mai marathon (wish I would have known about that beforehand – could have been fun!).
In Chiang Mai, there was actually good coffee (yes, espresso instead of typical Nescafé!). And, I’m pretty sure we found the best fruit shake lady in all of Thailand here. She was located right at the market, and her shakes contained loads of the freshest fruit. My favorite one was a combination of 2 bananas, 1/2 a pineapple, 1 mango, a cup of plain yogurt, and just a bit of ice. Yummy!
Aside from the cooking class, one of our favorite experiences here was renting bikes and riding them up Doi Suthep mountain to the Doi Suthep temple. We wanted to do something physically demanding and this bike ride did not disappoint! Although the ride was only 18 miles round trip, it had 7.5 miles of killer uphill (think Flagstaff Mountain, Vail Pass, Rabbit Ears). On our fancy bikes back home, this certainly wouldn’t have been nearly as challenging. But on clanky, old, heavy rental bikes without prosper gears, it demanded much more from us then we expected. It took 2.5 hours for us to reach the temple (it was much faster on the way down). Upon dismounting our bikes at the top, we found the climbing did not end – it was over 300 steps to the temple. The temple was a sight to see, but the demanding journey to get there and the incredible views along the way are what we enjoyed most about the day. For a better idea of what the ride was like, check out the video on this blog – http://www.pausethemoment.com/biking-doi-suthep-chiang-mai-thailand/.
On our journey back down the mountain, we decided to take a side trip to the Mon Tha Than waterfall.
The following day, we rented a motorbike and went to the zoo. They have a clever scheme for getting the tourists to pay for the animal food. All across the zoo, they had different stands where you can buy food to feed the animals. The hippos were the most entertaining to watch. They would just sit there with their mouths wide open waiting for food to be dropped into their mouth. The most intimidating to watch were the big cats. They would devour a slab of meat in one swallow. It was a nice zoo and it featured a number of animals endemic to southern Asia, such as the gibbon. It was fun to watch the gibbons – swinging around effortlessly, playing with each other, and making different sounds. One of the most popular animals at the zoo are the giant pandas which came from China (a male and female were brought from China 10 years ago and they had a baby 3 years ago). There was a nice exhibit showing the birth and growth of the baby panda.
After the zoo, we went for a ride on the motorbike. We drove around the entire old city and also further up Doi Suthep mountain for some incredible views as the sun was setting.
Our last day in Chiang Mai, we hired a tuk tuk and went to Maesa Elephant Camp and the Orchid Farm. Our driver was fun. When I asked him to take a picture of us in the tuk tuk, he insisted that Jay sit in the driver’s seat.
I had mixed feelings about the elephant camp. It is one of the most popular attractions in Chiang Mai, and although they say they treat the animals very well there and have saved them from a life of heavy labor, they have trained them to do things that are not natural – such as painting. We watched the elephants paint pictures as part of the elephant show. Yes, hard to believe, but each of the paintings below was done by the elephants.
The orchid farm was beautiful. I’d never seen that many orchids in one place before. I tried to find a green cymbidium orchid (the flower we used for our wedding). but to no avail. Upon arriving and paying the admission fee, they pinned a beautiful orchid onto your shirt. It wanted to keep mine on all day, but after riding around in the tuk tuk, it was in pretty bad shape.
That night, we left Chiang Mai on an overnight bus to Bangkok, the first leg of our long journey to the area of Cambodia where we are doing some volunteer work. More on that in a future post.