After spending some time soaking up the ancient history and culture of Thailand in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, we headed north to the more modern cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and the rural, but very touristy town of Pai. The north of Thailand is much more leafy and the air feels a little fresher, but it is also very rainy. We were looking forward to learning to cook some Thai cuisine and catching up with some friends in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is a large and busy city, but with a population of about half a million, it’s still not a patch on the size or madness of Bangkok – which we were quite thankful for! It’s not at all glitzy and there isn’t a shopping centre in sight. There are lots of laid back places to eat, from dirt cheap street food vendors to quite modern looking restaurants and cafes. Northern Thailand, and Chiang Mai in particular, have some signature dishes and foods which we were keen to try. Kao Soi, a big bowl of noodles in a thin yellow curry, quickly became a group favourite, as did Chiang Mai spicy and sour sausage for the meat-eaters. Apart from visiting temples, our time in Thailand so far has revolved a lot around food. We had heard that it was common for people to take a cooking class in Chiang Mai, and Grace and I were really keen to give it a go. We convinced the boys to come along too (Toby was the least enthusiastic), and I think they were pleased that we did.
We booked ourself onto a one day cooking class with a lovely lady called Benny. She arrived in a tuk-tuk at our hostel and first took us to a local food market on the outskirts of the city. She walked us up and down the aisles of exotic fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, and explained what they all were and what dishes they would be used in. We tasted food and drink from around the market, including milky iced tea, banana sticky rice, special Chiang Mai sausage and some fresh coconut. The market was full of locals and it was a bit of a drive out of the city, so it was nice to be somewhere authentically Thai with a Thai chef to answer all of our questions. It was great to see where lots of our ingredients had come from, and to be able to recognise them in their unprepared state.
We then went to Benny’s lovely house, situated on a quiet little street backing onto rice paddy fields. Our work benches were set up outside under a shelter in her garden. Before we began we picked some fresh herbs from her mum’s vegetable garden, which was another nice touch to show us where our ingredients came from. We would learn to cook five dishes each (and we could all choose different things), a starter (I chose vegetable spring rolls), a soup (I decided on a classic spicy and sour Tom Yum), a stir fry noodle dish (I picked my go-to Thai fast food, Pad Thai), a curry (I made a Massaman curry, traditional in the north of Thailand, and we even made our own curry paste), and a dessert (I went for the mango and sticky rice, I’d ordered it several times and it was a new favourite). We cooked food and then ate food, and then cooked more food, and ate more food! It lasted the whole day, it was absolutely fantastic. Not only did we have loads of fun, but we also felt like we’d achieved something as all of our dishes were delicious. Benny gave us a cook book to take home with us, which had all the recipes and a recap of all the things Benny had taught us about the ingredients in the market. The next test will be whether we can actually cook them on our own, without Benny telling us what to do!
The next day we met up with our friends Rob and Dan, who we first met in Taupō, New Zealand. Their trip around Asia was coming to an end, so we arranged to hang out together for a few days before they returned to the U.S.. They very politely indulged me in looking at all the pictures of the food we has made the day before, and they told us all about their trip. We all went together to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a Buddhist temple, situated up in the mountains towering above the city. It was established in 1383, when a visiting monk from Sukhothai instructed the Lanna king to build a new temple. A relic was placed on a white elephant and it walked around the mountainous area until it stopped and died on the ‘chosen’ spot where the temple now sits. After spending some time in central Thailand, we were a little bit templed-out, but it did offer a cool and misty view of the city.
Grace and Matt also went to get a traditional Thai massage, while Toby and I snuck off to buy presents for Matt’s upcoming birthday. It didn’t sound like their massage was a massage as we know it. Their limbs were stretched and pulled and their bodies contorted into strange shapes. When I asked Grace how she felt afterwards, she said she didn’t feel like she’d just had a massage, but she felt as though she had just stretched really well as if she was about to do some sport. It gave us plenty of entertainment hearing their stories of Thai ladies walking on their backs and violently pulling their arms and legs around.
Chiang Mai was a busy, yet laid back city with quite a bit to do, but it was the cooking class with Benny that stood out for us. It was definitely a top highlight of our Asia trip so far. Our next stop was the small town of Pai, and all six of us headed there together for what we hoped would be a relaxing few days.