Chiang Mai was our first real and formal introduction into Thailand. We were in Bangkok last year, but it was a rushed two days with a tour guide (who we loved) and we didn’t get a real good feel for the culture. Bangkok is really just another huge and bustling metropolis with grand malls and lots of people.
We had heard (mostly) excellent things about Chiang Mai, which is found in Northern Thailand. I would say that we had pretty high expectations but kind of expected it to be a bit like any other major Asian city. Even though it was oppressively hot when we visited (like all of Asia in April, are you starting you sense a theme here?) we still had a really good time.
Chiang Mai is a great place to feel like you are in Asia and experience the culture of Thailand, but to also be an arm’s reach to all the comfort items that us Westerners are used to. We had a private room with bathroom and air-con in the tourist center for only $18/night. It also had a pool. The infrastructure in Chiang Mai is great for tourism; there are plenty of affordable accommodation options, the food is delicious and cheap, and there are tons of activities for tourists so that you’re never bored. The old city is very walkable and transportation is reasonably priced. Even though we aren’t really “city” people, we cannot deny liking one that makes travel so easy.
A Day With the Elephants
We knew that while in Thailand we wanted to spend a day with Asian elephants. We wanted to be responsible tourists and choose a company that would help rather than harm the elephants. Enter Elephant Nature Park.
Elephant Nature Park rescues elephants from the tourism and illegal logging industries and gives them a better life. On the ride over we watched a video where we learned about the atrocities that elephants have endured. It was quite disturbing to learn about practices where they “break the spirit” of the elephant so that it will behave submissively in the tourism industry. We learned why riding elephants are bad for them, and we felt guilty about ever going to a circus. (Guilty feelings aside, we can all agree that knowledge is power, and now that we are equipped with the knowledge we can make better decisions for the future.)
We had an amazing day at Elephant Nature Park. We met like-minded folks and enjoyed chatting with them. The center also rescues dogs and cats, so there were plenty of both walking around that wanted a good rub down. The buffet lunch was vegetarian and delicious. We met a few people later in our travels that had spent the night at the center and loved the experience.
Our favorite thing, of course, was the time spent with the elephants. We were in a small group and it didn’t feel rushed at all. We fed many elephants, got our photos taken, and washed an 80-year old elephant in the river. We even got to see a 3-day old baby elephant! It was the cutest thing ever, especially when it got to play in the mud for the first time. I think everyone had a huge smile on their face. Elephants are truly amazing creatures, and they are so gentle. This was a day we will always remember.
Thai Farm Cooking Class
Our second favorite thing that we did was a Thai cooking class. We spent a full day learning how to cook a ton of different dishes. The cooking school picked us up from the hotel and took us to the local market. Once we bought ingredients we went to the countryside for a day spent in the outdoor kitchen at the organic farm.
We took a tour of the farm and learned about the local herbs used in Thai cooking (that part was really boring and hot). Then we got our hands dirty and started the cooking portion! We learned how to make curry paste from scratch. Everyone made five dishes each, so there was a ton of food. Our favorites were the cashew chicken stir-fy and the pad thai. Standard Thai food, but really tasty!
The class was a lot of fun and went at a nice pace. I loved that we each had our own individual cooking station with a wok, cutting board, and mortar and pestle. The best part was that someone cleans it all up for you! By the end of the day we were completely stuffed. I think we all took leftovers home.
We weren’t able to sneak the elephants in our backpacks, but at least we have the skills to make an awesome Thai dinner when we get home. Hopefully it will be just as tasty back in America.