We landed in Chiang Mai after a quick flight from Phuket. Flights in SE Asia are very cheap and since our friends only have two weeks in Thailand, we were able to save a day or two traveling from the south up to the northern province of Chiang Mai.
We planned to stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, for the duration of their stay because there is so much to do in the city and surrounding area. We had pre-booked rooms in a hostel so we settled in and relaxed with a few Changs before hitting the town hard the next day.
We ate fried chicken with garlic rice and chocolate shakes (all for $2) at a local restaurant right down the street from our hostel. It was so cheap, convenient and delicious that Chris, Julie and I ate there everyday we were in Chiang Mai.Ready to start the day, we negotiated with a taxi driver to take us outside the city to Tiger Kingdom. I bet you can guess what happens at Tiger Kingdom…The difference between seeing tigers in Thailand versus the U.S.? If you put down some cold hard cash, you’re allowed inside the enclosures. Chris, Julie and I opted to hangout with the full grown tigers. Seeing the tigers up close gave us a real appreciation for how strong and incredibly beautiful these cats are. The tiger trainers encouraged us to take photos doing different poses. They really wanted Chris to pretend the tiger’s tail was his mustache. As you can imagine, Chris has informed us that tiger’s tails don’t smell very good. In the meantime, Dan and Jason chose to cuddle and play with the smallest tiger cubs. Aren’t they so cute? Josh, the nicest and funniest taxi driver in Thailand, returned us to our hostel with 30 minutes to spare before Aon from Red Chili Cooking School picked us up in a tuk truck. If you haven’t already noticed, we’ve really enjoyed eating all of food in Thailand. From traditional dishes to weird looking foods we find wandering along the streets, it’s all been amazing. Interested in learning more about the local cuisine, we decided to sign up for a four course Thai cooking class. We stopped to pick up a Scottish couple before heading to a local market where Aon taught us about Thai ingredients and the local produce. Aon cut us loose for a few minutes to let us meander through the market by ourselves. Chris was all over the stalls serving mountains of crackling (pork rinds). Once we had our fill of the market, we hopped in the tuk truck and arrived at Aon’s home, where he gives his Thai cooking lessons. He prepared a table for us to sit at outside and we had some refreshments before getting started. One of the local fruits, longan, is a cross between a grape and lychee. They are tasty little things! Aon limits his class to ten cooks so we each had our own cooking station fully equipped with all necessary utensils, dishes and cutlery. For the first course, everyone is able to choose from tom yung goong (spicy soup with prawns) or tom kha gai (coconut soup with chicken). Most of us went for the spicy prawn soup. As a group, we’d select, prep and portion out all of the spices and ingredients we needed for our dish. We carefully watched and listened as Aon took us through the process of how and when to cook everything.We tasted his finished product and then went to work on our own. Once we finished, we sat down to enjoy our masterpiece. No joke, the tom yung goong was so good and so flavorful; it was my favorite dish of the night!Next up was the noodle dish. Each person could make pad see euw (fried noodles with sweet soy sauce) or pad thai (fresh fried noodles with peanuts). Chris and I both made pad see euw, one of our favorite Thai dishes. We gathered and prepped all of our ingredients into the appropriate proportions before systematically adding them all into the wok. Same recipe but the outcome looks completely different (Chris’ on left, Annie’s on right).After eating our second course, I was stuffed…but we still had two more courses to go! The next course was a curry dish. I chose to make a green curry while Chris went for the spicer red panaeng curry. This was our favorite dish to make because we learned how to make our curry pastes from scratch. The aroma from grinding all of the herbs and spices together by mortar and pestle smelled so good. Our curries were absolutely delish! Our last course was a stir-fry and I think all five us made the gai pad med mamuang, more commonly known as stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts. The first step in creating our stir-fry was to make what Aon referred to as an “explosion.”That’s when he taught us how to create a fire ball in our wok. The key according to Aon? Make sure you have a lot of “power” before you start. Power = Beer. He was right…look at Chris’ power to fire ratio compared to mine. As the night went on, our presentation and cooking skills started to become a bit sloppy, but it all tasted fantastic. I really think that it was the best food we’ve had in Thailand and as Jason said, “I can’t believe we made food taste so good!”To complete the evening, Aon had us light and release a wish lantern into the night sky. It was a perfect way to end such an awesome night. Free plug because we had such an amazing time… Red Chili Cooking School is the heat! We highly recommend taking a class from them if you are in Chiang Mai. There are tons of cooking schools in the city to choose, but we can’t imagine that it gets much better than Red Chili. Aon is awesome and he has created such a wonderful ambiance to learn, eat and have fun. So book with Red Chili Cooking School, your belly will thank you.
The next morning we were picked up and taken to the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai to volunteer for the day at an elephant sanctuary. Riding elephants has always been on my bucket list, but I had a change of heart after learning more about the elephant tourism industry in SE Asia. I won’t go into detail here, but I do encourage you to reconsider riding on elephants if you care about their well-being. I’m lucky our friends chose to volunteer at the elephant sanctuary with us instead of going on a trek (which was on all of their bucket lists before they came to Thailand). For more info about why you should reconsider riding an elephant, you can read A brief education: the dark side to the elephant tourism industry and Speaking for the elephants…in memory of Mae Sai Roong.
Once we arrived at the sanctuary, our day started with playtime and snack time with the elephants. We fed them bunches of bananas, watermelons and pineapples right from our hands. The elephant sanctuary is home to more than 40 Asian elephants rescued from brutal days working in the logging, trekking and tourism industries. Every elephant had a rescue story. My favorite was a blind elephant named Lucky who recently retired from the circus and is fairly new to the sanctuary. Dan’s favorite was Dani who came from a life of logging and was about to be sold for a life begging on the streets before she was rescued. One of the highlights was bathing the elephants in the river. Armed with buckets, we threw water on them to clean them off and keep them cool. They loved it. Look how happy Chris is making the elephant in the last picture…it’s smiling! Of course, once they were clean, they went straight to the mud for a mud bath which keeps them cool and protects their skin from the sun. After hours of playing with the elephants and one last feeding time, it was time for us to head back to Chiang Mai. Thank you so much to the Quanstroms, Hollingsworths and Kronengolds for the elephant sanctuary honeyfund. We all had the greatest time volunteering! That evening, we walked around the famous night market where you can buy knockoff designer goods and Thai souvenirs. What we ended up buying a lot of were Chang beers and rum punches. The next morning, I had such a bad Chang-over that I decided to stay in to recover. Dan and Jason spent the afternoon shopping and Chris and Julie went to check-out a few local wats (Buddhist temples). In the evening, we all went out to the Muay Thai stadium to catch a few fights. Muay Thai, similar to boxing, is Thailand’s national sport and is even taught to children at school. Our fight night started with lightweight contenders, followed by a girl fight and then a hilarious blindfolded fight between four Thai men.The featured fight of the night was the reigning Thailand national champion versus an opponent all the way from France. It was nuts. You could see the sweat come flying off their hair when they were punched across the face. Thai men and women were cheering, screaming and going crazy the entire time. It was quite the experience and in the end, Thailand won against France. Hooray!The next day was Jason, Dan and Julie’s last day in Thailand. Julie went to explore one more temple while the rest of us shopped and relaxed with massages. Chris and I enjoyed foot massages while Jason and Dan were worked over by two tiny Thai ladies. At some points, it looked pretty painful.We met back up with Julie for one last group dinner before we all had to say goodbye. It was amazing spending two weeks with friends and we were really sad to see them go. Their time here has made us realize how fortunate we are to have such great family and friends to come home to at the end of our trip. Jason, Dan and Julie – thanks for making Thailand so memorable. We miss you already!