From Big City Bustle to the Peace of the Countryside

After the hustle and bustle (and horrendous pollution) of the big city of Bangkok, we were more than ready to explore the countryside and mountains of the northern part of Thailand.  We hopped a flight and headed for Chiang Mai.  Fortunately, the flight was just under an hour and a half since this was the squishiest, big plane I have ever been on.  I am not a very tall person, and my knees were jammed into the seat in front of me.  I felt really bad for Dan and his super long legs.  Other than that, the flight was quite painless.  Our hotel sent a driver to get us, and in 30 minutes we were nestled amongst the rice paddies in our bungalow.  The grounds were beautifully tropical, and the bungalow was spacious.  From a comfort perspective, I felt like we had just rented Fred Flintstone’s house.  For those of you unfamiliar with the American cartoon “The Flintstones,” they are a Stone Age family living in house made of stone and completely furnished in stone.  You think I am kidding, but the base of our bed is a cement structure topped with a mattress that feels more like a box spring.  This was going to be rough on my old body!

Since we had been on the go since we arrived, we decided our first full day would be a day of rest…..and rest we did.  We hung out by the pool (had it all to ourselves), got some sun and did some swimming.  By the next day, we were back to it.  We walked 2 miles, past the small town, and up the hill to the base of a very large temple.  After climbing 300 steps (yep, 300 hundred!  I counted each one of those suckers!), we arrived at the base of this magnificent temple.  We climbed another bunch of steps to explore the temple grounds and took a peek inside (I was wearing shorts which is a no-no for women).  Dan and I separated and wandered in different directions.  As I rounded the corner of the temple, I stopped in my tracks.  I just about had a heart attack.  Ahead of me sat what looked to be 10 monks posed in deep prayer.  I panicked!  (There are a number of rules/expectations when encountering monks, and I did not want to offend anyone or screw something up).  I turned on my heel and booked it back down the stairs to head around the other side of the temple.  By the time I got to the same spot I had been (but on the opposite side of the temple), I ran into Dan.  I told him about the monks I almost blundered into and showed him where they were sitting.  Dan tells me he doesn’t think they are real and proceeds to wander over by them.  I, of course, am freaking out now…..he is walking right up to this group of praying monks!  At this point, he calls me over (laughing) because wouldn’t you know….they were not real!  Check out the picture!  They look totally real, don’t they?!

300 steps of devotion to the top!
They looked so real!

We continued our exploration of the grounds which took us to another area with a giant Buddha.  Much of the two additional areas were still under construction but still beautiful sights to see.  It was amazing to see the time, effort and detail that goes into making these temples and monuments.  We stopped for a quick lunch on the grounds which was really tasty (despite being cooked in a shack).  From there, we climbed a very steep hill, and a bunch more steps, to see another Buddha monument under construction.  We then trekked down the hill to a big, white Stupa still under construction as well.  By now, the day had become brutally hot as we made our way back down the hill.  In the end, we had walked almost 6 miles and climbed 28 floors in temperatures that were in the mid to high 90’s.  By the time we got back to our room, we were both overheated and exhausted.  It had been such an exhausting day that we skipped dinner, and I fell asleep by 8:30!  Pathetic!

The next day we had planned to visit the Tiger Kingdom (a place where you could interact with tigers and potentially feed the cubs), but decided to push it to a later date since neither of us had slept well and both of us were pretty sore.  Instead, we opted to rent a car and head into the mountains.  This was a little unsettling since the roads are narrow, there is a lot of traffic, the drivers seem to make their own rules, the steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car, and you drive on the opposite side of the street than we do at home.  Once we got out of the city, it wasn’t so bad.  However, if you are prone to motion sickness, this is not the drive for you.  We basically had 4 hours of winding, hairpin turns up the mountain and back down again.  The scenery was absolutely prehistoric looking (picture Jurassic Park with giant, tropical trees/plants).  There were a number of attractions that sounded interesting…..like the monkey reserve and the cobra exhibit….but after reading the reviews about how mistreated the animals were, we decided that we would not support those kinds of tourist traps.  Instead, we headed to a waterfall and hiked to the various flows.  Given that this is the dry season, the water flow was extremely impressive.  I can’t imagine what it looks like during the rainy season!

As we made our way back to our hotel, we decided to stop at a market to pick up some things for our room.  One thing we had discovered is that alcohol is not an easily accessible thing in Thailand.  Well, let me clarify that….it is not an easy thing to buy outside of restaurants or bars.  The first time we headed out in search of a bottle of wine for our room, not only was wine nearly impossible to find, but the one crappy variety that we did find was over $20 for a bottle!  No thank you.  Things were not a whole lot different here in Chiang Mai.  We learned very quickly that wine is practically non-existent or extremely expensive.  Believe it or not, Johnny Walker whiskey was priced substantially less!  Anyway, we stopped into a grocery store on our way back to pick up some things for the room.  This was by far the biggest market we had found so far.  We grabbed some fruit, snacks and juice for the room….along with a bottle of vodka.  As we were checking out, the girl pulls the vodka and wags her finger at us while shaking her head no.  No?  We are now completely confused.  It’s Monday (maybe that is like our Sunday in states that don’t sell alcohol?).  It is also Chinese New Year’s Eve…..could that be the reason?  What do you do when you are lost for answers?  Google, of course!  I search, “buying alcohol in….” The third line in the list is buying alcohol in Thailand.  Apparently, we are not the only ones confused.  So here is the scoop….you can buy drinks any time in restaurants or bars.  You can buy alcohol from stores, markets, and mom/pop joints everyday except between the hours of 2-5.  It was 4:30.  Yeah Google!  Question asked and answered.

We were now on our 5th day in Chiang Mai.  The adventure planned for this day was a Thai cooking class.  We would be picked up in downtown Chiang Mai at 8:15 a.m. in a tuk-tuk for full day of Thai cooking.  This required us to leave our hotel by 6:50 to make the 40 minute drive and turn in the rental car from the day before.  Once picked up, we were joined by 6 other people….all American, but 3 who were living and working in China.  Our first stop was a big open air market where some of the most amazing fruits and vegetables could be found.  There was also a variety of fresh meats and seafoods.  When I say fresh…..the frogs were jumping around in the buckets and the catfish were splashing around in their buckets.  There were also some less than appetizing selections such as chicken feet, giant livers, and plucked chickens with the heads still attached.  In addition to all of this, there were many, many vendors of fresh cooked Thai food.  Our instructor (Benny) started us off with a sample of an amazing sausage and a coconut pancake.  Both were extremely tasty.  Once we finished at the market, we loaded up the tuk-tuk and headed to Benny’s house for class.  On the way, we were each given a slip of paper and a descriptive menu, so that we could choose the type of dishes we wanted to make.  Dan and I plotted together so that we each made something different and therefore could try both.  We chose an appetizer (he chose fresh spring rolls, and I did chicken satay).  We also chose a curry paste that we would make for our curry dish (he chose Panaeng, and mine was Kaw-Soi which was native to Chiang Mai).  We chose a soup with meat (Dan chose Tom-Yum with shrimp, and I made Tom-Sab with shrimp).  We chose a noodle dish (Dan chose Drunken Noodles, and I chose Pad-Thai).  Finally, we chose our dessert (Dan chose mango with sticky rice, and I chose steamed banana cake).

Once we arrived at Benny’s house, we headed over to a large open air kitchen where she conducts her classes.  The cool thing about this is that each one of us had our own cooking station and materials.  We started off with a refreshing beverage made with Butterfly pea flowers….quite tasty and refreshing.  When you squeeze the lime into the drink, it changes color!  Then, it was time to begin.  Our first task was to make our curry paste which would be used later in the day to make our curry dish.  First, Benny demonstrated what we would do, and then we were all sent to our stations with our ingredients to do some chopping.  Once that was done, we headed to our mortar and pestle and began to grind and pound until our ingredients became a very smooth paste.  Next, she demonstrated how to make the appetizers and we were turned loose to replicate her steps with our own ingredients.  Once those were set aside, we followed the same process for our soup.  We chopped, boiled, and mixed.  I went a little nuts on my tiny chiles (she said they call them rat poop), so my soup not only sent me into coughing fits but also had my nose running…..but still, oh so good!  We all sat at the table to dine on our appetizers and soup.  After everyone was finished, it was back to the demo table where Benny showed us how to make our noodle dish.  The Pad-Thai actually turned out to be the most complex one to make.  When our noodle dishes were complete, we once again sat down to enjoy our creations.  At this point, we took a nice 40 minute break to let our food digest and just relax.  We had an awesome time swapping stories and hearing about everyone’s various travels.  This also gave our host and her family a chance to rest and have their lunch.  Before we knew it, it was time to make our final two dishes.  We started with the desserts and those were set aside (mine had to steam) and then went on to our curry dishes.  Between the 8 of us, we had chosen 4 different curries.  This time, my chosen dish was one of the easiest to make.  After watching the steps, we headed to our station to create our curry using our homemade curry paste.  Mine was Chiang Mai Curry noodles with chicken (native to the area).  The most important part about preparing curry is that if you burn it, or cook it too long, it becomes very bitter.  Just as before, we all sat down and enjoyed our curry followed by our dessert.  It was one of the greatest cooking classes I have ever experienced, and I HIGHLY recommend it.  We left with a cookbook of all the dishes that were made by everyone, along with some extra recipes.  Dan and I are very much looking forward to trying our hand at this on our own once we get home.  We loaded ourselves back into the tuk-tuk and headed back to town to our respective drop off spots.  We sadly said goodbye to all our new friends and made our way back to our hotel another 40 minutes away.  It had been an 11 hour day from start to finish, and we were both completely exhausted, yet again.  This would be our last night here before heading off to the elephant sanctuary for day 6 and day 7.

Our thai cooking instructor Benny explaining how to find good ingredients in the market
Making curry paste. Lots of work!!!
New friends
Great setup with everyone having individual cook stations
Benny teaching the art of thai cuisine
Wok and roll!
It’s beer-30!
Dessert! Steamed banana cake. No ovens in thai kitchens!
Tuk tuk ride back to town. Great group of folks made for a great day.
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