Thai curries and stir-fries and soups, Oh my!

Chiang Mai is known for its terrific cooking schools, so we signed up for a class at the shiny, cheerful Baan Thai Cookery School. It was a sensory experience from start to finish.

At the local market, we held and sniffed lemon grass and different varieties of limes, basil, ginger and other herbs and spices, and learned that the smaller varieties of garlic and chilies pack a bigger punch than the larger ones (with the teensy ‘Mouse Poop Chili’ – พริกขี้หนู – being the hottest). We also learned that soy and mushroom sauce make fine vegetarian substitutes for fish and oyster sauce.

We were given some time to explore the market on our own. I happily bought some lychees and tiny bananas, while poor Elise kept staring at the ground after almost having stepped on a cockroach.

We saw lots of durian for sale. In Kuala Lumpur, I had a tiny nibble of durian ice cream and was shocked at how bad it tasted. It has such a strong, putrid odor that it’s banned in many hotels and public places. It’s a riot to see a row of signs with a red X through cigarettes, weapons…and a fruit.

The course offered a choice of different appetizers, stir-fries, soups, and curries, Elise decided to go for classic Thai dishes: spring rolls, Pad Thai, Tom Yam soup, and green curry, while I chose papaya salad, cashew stir-fry, coconut milk soup, and Koa Soi, a spicy noodle curry.

And at every turn we were treated to a new heavenly scent – the fresh zest of a cut lime, the commingling of spices in a hot wok, the tanginess of a crushed garlic/chili/sugar/lime dressing. Even the implements – thick, round, wooden cutting boards and tall, clay mortars and wooden pestles – were satisfying to the senses.

It was also a feast for the eyes, from the colorful raw ingredients arranged on platters and glistening curry paste in tiny bowls, to the bubbling bright red or milky green curries on the stove top, to the finished dishes sprinkled with crispy noodles or nuts and garnished with cilantro.

We got to eat each dish as soon as we finished preparing it. My favorite ended up being the coconut milk soup, and Elise’s were the spring rolls and green curry soup. Some variation of these dishes will likely end up in the travel cookbook we plan to create!

Afterwards, we tackled some math homework and then went for what we’d hoped would be a leisurely swim, but monsoon rains appeared out of nowhere and drove us back indoors. It wasn’t quite the perfect ending to a perfect day that I’d hoped for, but the soothing sound of the rain pounding all surfaces was a fine consolation prize.

At long last….elephants!

On a Scandinavian cruise in 2014 with Elise’s Gran, I met a fellow traveler whose son was volunteering at an elephant rescue in northern Thailand. These many years later, we finally made it there and Elise loved it! Said it was the highlight of our travels so far – and given that we’ve had various adventures in 13 different countries, that says a lot.

The place was Happy Elephant Home, which allows visitors and volunteers to feed and bathe the elephants. They have a No Hook/No Riding policy (the wooden box saddles are particularly harmful to elephants’ spines and outfits touting such rides should be avoided). The adult elephants were rescued from logging and circus work, and the little baby, Via, now almost two years old, was born at the refuge. Elise adored him, and from the looks of it, he liked her, too.

We were given bananas to feed the elephants, and were told that they have a distinct preference for ripe bananas. Indeed, when we gave one of the adults little green bananas she tossed them aside and reached into our baskets for yellow ones.

There was a flash of monsoon rains which drenched everything and everyone. I held my camera under my wicker banana basket to try to keep it dry while I shot. The rain also made the muddy path to the river even muddier, though my rubber-soled sandals kept me from landing on my butt in a muddy puddle. One person’s flip-flop disappeared completely in the slimy goo and made a squelching sound when she pulled it out. In that moment, I had a flashback to the meticulous/time-intensive pre-trip gear planning, and felt the effort I’d taken to choose sandals had been worth it.

We made our way to the river and then bathed the elephants (and ourselves). The current was strong so a guide helped Elise reach the elephants in the middle of the river. I waded in with my camera (how could I not try to capture that scene?!) and somehow managed not to drop it or to topple over in the current.

Those giants sweeties seemed to enjoy their bath, but their cleanliness didn’t last long. As soon as they reached their favorite mud pit, the baby lay down and rolled around in it, and the adults threw mud on themselves….and on Elise, lol. She wondered whether she was just an innocent bystander, or whether they were trying to take care of her like a little baby elephant.

All in all, a wonderful experience that we will never forget.

Old Town temples in Chiang Mai

After way more than one night in Bangkok (13 to be exact), I was chomping at the bit to head north to Chiang Mai. And what a lovely place it was! The pace was slower, traffic lighter, and navigation much easier. The Old Town is essentially a giant square surrounded by a moat, and things are either within its walls or north, south, east or west of it.

There are temples sprinkled throughout, each with its own mystique. A few seemed desolate. The silent figures, shuttered windows, and chipped paint of one we wandered into near the Night Market reminded me of the abandoned amusement park in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

The magnificent Wat Phra Singh, on the other hand, which had golden dragons flanking its entrance and stunning golden stupas, was a bustling microcosm of activity.

There were people praying before a giant golden Buddha in the main temple and monks sitting cross-legged in one of the smaller halls. With them there, I felt strangely shy about going in, even to make a donation, likely because of the temple signs instructing women not to touch the monks or even hand things to them. The signs also informed visitors that it was inappropriate to use Buddha as a decoration or as a tattoo.

Wat Chedi Luang was atmospheric in a different way. It’s towering, ruined ancient chedi (built in 1441) dominates the temple grounds. Each side of the crumbling pyramid offers new surprises: golden Buddhas, a row of stone elephants, a hall with a reclining Buddha, and donation boxes for various causes. Elise donated to the care of the animals of the temple and to the year of the pig.

Along the path of the Night Market, we stopped for a Thai massage, which come with bonus stretches (lazy man’s yoga).

Afterwards, we ate at a Japanese restaurant. Elise loved her tempura udon, but I was less excited about my zaru soba, which, oddly, arrived with ice cubes in it making the noodles soggy. Having had my share of zaru soba during a three-year stint in Japan, I gently suggested chilling the noodles in ice water and then shaking them out before serving.

After the blah sameness of the rooms of the Bangkok Ibis, we were delighted to have discovered Baan Saen Fang Hotel, a hidden gem with four northern Thai bungalows and views of Wat Saen Fang, which glowed in the night sky. For breakfast, they served bowls of fruit and muesli garnished with morning glories on our front porch. Just lovely.