If Koh Samui was the part of our vacation where we didn’t do much, Chiang Mai was the part of our vacation where we did it all.
Upon our arrival, we immediately noticed the smoky haze that seemed to blanket all of Chiang Mai. Turns out we were visiting during the time of year that neighboring farmers were burning off their crops. We also noticed the moderate temperature – I mean, still hot, but not unbearable in long pants and sleeved shirts.
We checked into our hotel, U Chiang Mai, in the middle of the Old City and spent the rest of our afternoon touring the Wats (aka temples) that were in walking distance from our digs. We had read in our tour book that one must be appropriately dressed when entering the temples, so that meant no shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless shirts. I’d also recommend sandals or easy to remove shoes since most temples require you to leave your shoes at the door.
After our tour of the temples, Mr. S and I sat down to some lunch at an unassuming outdoor restaurant. I had the stir fried squid with salted egg, which I’m dubbing my favorite meal of our entire trip. That’s quite the honor considering how much and how often we ate in Thailand.
The following day was a long awaited visit to Elephant Nature Park (ENP), two hours outside of Chiang Mai. We specifically chose ENP because they are a rescue organization strictly against the use of hooks, forced riding, or other abusive treatment toward these majestic creatures. All the elephants at ENP were rescued from darker pasts (logging industry, abusive tourism efforts, etc.) and are asked to do nothing more but live out their days peacefully on the ENP grounds. As tourists, we had the pleasure of just watching them do their thang – eating, bathing, pooping, etc. – and feeding them copious amounts of bananas.
Our day started with meeting the elephants (seven total including a baby) and learning a bit about their personalities (two of the elephants were food possessive and had to be fed separately from the rest of the group) and how to properly feed them. We fed the elephants a combo of bananas, watermelon, squash, and bamboo, all of which they scarfed down happily. (Although there was one elephant that was very picky and would throw aside the squash in favor of the watermelon. Can’t blame her – I’d do the same thing.)
Then we started our hike through the grasslands, walking alongside the elephants half enthralled by how close we were to them and half terrified that we might be accidentally trampled. But, our fears were unfounded – trainers were with us at all times, giving voice commands to the elephant to relax or walk away when they seemed to be too over eager. Eventually we all caught on – the elephants just wanted the bananas (we were all given banana bags). Their trunks would root around our bodies, their nostrils flaring open and closed, searching out the yellow stuff. We obliged, pulling out banana after banana and placing it into their waiting trunk.
After the first banana feeding, the trainers set up a mud bath for the elephants and we watched in delight as the herd covered themselves with the cooling muck. The baby in particular was very happy to get down and dirty.
The rest of our day was spent hiking with the herd, stopping at camp for a lunch (prepared by ENP staff), bathing the elephants in the river, and finally saying goodbye to our pachyderm companions. We finished the day with a very mild white water raft adventure down the river, visiting a herd of handicapped elephants at ENP’s base camp, and seeing behind the scenes of what it takes to take care of ENP’s 44 elephants and numerous rescued dogs and cats. Our guide explained that elephants in the wild form herds based on family ties. The rescued elephants at ENP are not related, but they still naturally form/join herds on their own. He noted that the handicapped elephants weren’t placed together by the ENP staff, but rather they all banded together of their own accord – pretty cool, huh?
The next day we hired a taxi to take us up the mountain to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The story goes that a white elephant carrying a relic of Buddha climbed the mountain of Doi Suthep. The king took the elephant’s action as a sign and erected a temple at the top of the mountain: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
To get to the temple requires ascending 300+ steps. There is a cable car that will take you up, but Mr. S and I decided to work off all those noodles we had been consuming and set off on foot. The stairs were very doable – not steep or high at all. Once we reached the top, we removed our shoes and entered the temple grounds.
After visiting so many temples and witnessing people reverently praying and making offerings of food and flowers to statues of Buddha, it became obvious that the experience was a much more spiritual one for a practicing Buddhist than a non-Buddhist like myself. I kind of felt like an intruder at times, wandering around and snapping pictures when others were having a religious moment. In retrospect, I wish we had done a guided tour of a temple earlier in our trip in Chiang Mai so that we could appreciate all the actions and symbolism. It wasn’t until we got to Bangkok where we had guided tour of the Grand Palace (which includes a temple in its complex) that I got to ask all my questions (more on that in my next post).
After Doi Suthep, our hired taxi took us to a recommended restaurant for lunch. I had the Chiang Mai specialty of Kow Soi – a curry noodle soup with chicken. So yummy.
Then it was on to the “handicraft villages” which showcased the work of different Thai trades: silk, silver, woodworking, paper umbrellas, etc. The silk factory was especially eye-opening – I mean, I knew silk came from silk worms, but I guess I didn’t realize what that exactly meant. I thought maybe someone was collecting the magical silk cobwebs spun by living silk worms. But no, silk worms cocoon themselves, settling in for a nice long nap before hopefully emerging as a pretty silk butterfly/moth. But while they’re sleeping, the cocoons are harvested, boiled in water, and then spun into silk thread. Once the whole cocoon is spun, the dead worm is revealed and discarded. I don’t have much of an affinity for insects, but I felt really bad for those silk worms.
Our last day in Chiang Mai was spent at the Thai Farm Cooking School. Friends that had visited Chiang Mai strongly recommended we take a cooking class, and we were eager to learn how to make some of the dishes we had been enjoying on our trip thus far. Plus, knowing our options for Thai takeout are slim to none in our New Jersey suburb, our only hope of enjoying Thai food at home after leaving NYC is to make it ourselves.
The day started out with a stop at a local market. Our teacher/guide pointed out some of the key ingredients to Thai cooking that we wouldn’t be able to find on the farm: fish sauce, tamarind paste, and palm sugar.
Our teacher also explained the different varieties of rice: long grain, short grain, white, brown, red, etc.
After that, our group was give 15 minutes to wander the market ourselves. Mr. S and I strolled up and down the produce aisles, pointing out fruits and vegetables we didn’t recognize. We also ventured into the refrigerated butcher area where pigs, poultry, seafood, and even some frogs were being broken down for sale.
After a half hour drive, we arrived at the Thai Farm Cooking School. The small farm operated by the school produces, among other things, Thai basil, chili peppers, jackfruit, coconut, galangal root, and Thai eggplant all used by the cooking school. Our teacher gave us a tour of the grounds before setting us up in the kitchen classroom. We all got to select dishes to prepare for the day and Mr. S and I coordinated so that we wouldn’t repeat each other’s menu. For the first course, I prepared Tom Yam soup and Mr. S made Tom Kha soup – the main difference being that Mr. S’s soup called for coconut milk while mine did not.
We also made a curry, pounding the spices to a paste with a mortar and pestle. I made yellow curry and Mr. S made green curry (we were able to control the heat level to our liking by using more or less chilies).
Finally, our last lunch course was chicken with cashew nuts for me and chicken with basil for Mr. S. With our first three dishes complete, we all sat down to lunch to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
In the afternoon, we made dessert – mango with sticky rice from Mr. S (of course) and banana in coconut milk with pandan leaves from me. Mr. S used iris flowers to give his rice that blue-ish tint.
We also cooked ourselves some pad Thai and spring rolls, which were packaged up to go for our dinner. (Thank goodness because by that time, I was waddling around I was so full.) All “to go” food in Thailand is parceled in plastic baggies knotted shut by some very fascinating bag tying skills. (Similar to the way you would take home a prize goldfish from the county fair). We’d seen everything from noodles, curries, to soups/sauces being toted around Thailand and eaten straight out of the bag with expert dexterity – not one leak, spill, or drop. I was very impressed.
I have to say, of the three cities we visited in Thailand, Chiang Mai was my favorite. It seemed to have more character than Koh Samui but without the noise and pollution of Bangkok. And of course, Chiang Mai had the elephants. Elephants are, understandably, tough to beat.