Chiang Mai: Elephants and Thai Cooking
After two full days of traveling, as mentioned in my previous post, we were happy to have arrived in Chiang Mai. While taking the shared taxi to the city center, we immediately noticed the amount of foreigners here. It was especially shocking after seeing relatively few foreigners in Myanmar. It immediately showed the difference between the tourism industry in Myanmar and that in Thailand.
We ended up staying in Chiang Mai, the biggest city in northern Thailand, for four nights. We used two of those days for excursions and two days for a bit of relaxation. Chiang Mai seems to be the place to be for foreigners living in Thailand. The weather is a bit milder (at least at night), the city is much calmer and more relaxed than Bangkok, it’s easy to navigate walking or by motorcycle, you can get any type of food there, and it’s just overall a nice city. I can honestly see why so many people move here for periods of months to several years.
We decided to do a few different activities in Chiang Mai. We found ourselves tired of temples (after seeing thousands in Myanmar, how could we not be tired of them?) and walking around cities, so we decided to do a Thai cooking class and a day-trip to an elephant park.
Thai Cooking Class
Thailand has some of the best food in the world. Most people, when they think of Thai food, might think of Pad Thai, a noodle dish with bean sprouts and peanuts. But there is so much more. Stir fry chicken basil. Stir fry cashew nut chicken. And green curry, just to name a few. There are many different places around Chiang Mai offering half-day and full-day cooking classes. We chose Asia Scenic (http://www.asiascenic.com/) and chose the full-day farm cooking class (9am – 4:30pm, 1,100 Bahts ($30)). We were driven 30 minutes out to their farm, where we were shown the different fresh ingredients we were to be using. Chilis, basils, lemongrass, ginger, and much more. Out at the farm, they had the kitchen perfectly set up for us to cook, including a long cutting table and a personal gas stove for each person in the group. We were grouped along with several others, including a few Americans, Germans, and Spanish.
Our cooking teacher was named A, a young, energetic young man. Each individual was able to pick out four different dishes to make, including a main, a curry, an appetizer, and a dessert. I chose Pad Thai, spring rolls, tom sab soup, green curry, and deep fried bananas. Our teacher was very efficient in teaching us and getting us to cook, even though we usually had several different dishes to make. We would cut our ingredients, sort them into different groups depending on when we’d put them in the wok, and then we’d cook it all up on the gas stove. To avoid burning, we were almost always stirring or mixing when frying. We our teacher constantly screaming at us to do something (add water, heat up, stir more), things got intense. After all was said and done, everything tasted incredible, as we shared our creations with others in our group. I must say, I didn’t know I was such a good chef!
We decided on what seemed to be the most reputable elephant park, called Baanchang Elephant Park. There is always a lot of controversy about elephant parks. Obviously, elephant populations have dropped to low levels as poachers have used the tusks to earn huge sums of money. Now, elephants can be easy to be found in Southeast Asia, but mostly in tourists areas and used to give rides to anyone who will pay for them. The problem with this is that the elephants are often abused, not given enough food, and generally have bad health. Many tourist places put chairs on the elephant’s back and allow three or four people to ride, which puts a lot of weight and can cause a lot of pain to the elephant.
I think it’s easy for people in the western world to think it’s cruel just to ride elephants. To us, it’s such a rare animal and should not be ridden. I disagree. Elephants have always been used in Southeast Asia the same way that horses have been used in the US and Europe. They’ve been used to help haul materials such as wood, and they’ve been used to ride in wars. I believe that, as long as they are treated well, it’s ethical to ride them for a short period of time.
The Baanchang Elephant Park seems to be an ethical elephant park. The price tag is a bit steep, costing 2,400 Bahts ($73) but is worth the cost. The park takes in abused and injured elephants, providing them a trainer who stays with them almost 24 hours a day. The animals are fed well, are only ridden for short-periods of time to give them exercise, and are treated well.
The tour had several different parts. We started off by taking a huge basket of bananas and sugar cane and walking around feeding various elephants. The elephants were separated with a good 30 feet between each other, so we could walk around and feed various. As we would get close to one, they would stick out their trunk and try to grab the sugar cane. Some would actually open up their mouths so we could place four or five bananas (unpeeled, skin and all) on their tongue. Raw sugar cane is extremely hard, like a tree branch, but they would grab it with their trunk, place several sticks in their mouth, chew five times, and it’d be gone. Quite impressive. We spent about 40 minutes feeding the elephants, and this gave us a chance to immediately get up close and personal.
Next, we were shown how to give voice commands to the elephants. We were taught how to tell it to lay down (so we could get on its back), to go forward, and to turn right and left. Then, one-by-one, we got on an elephant to test our commands. Getting on the elephant was absolutely surreal; to be on such a large and strong animal, and to feel it stand up and move around, was terrifying at first. But after a bit of time, I started to relax and feel more comfortable.
After a short go by myself, we were paired up to ride the elephant, so Chika and I got up on an elephant named How-Ko. We were taken around for about 45 minutes on paths leading around the elephant park. Many times How-Ko would sneeze through its truck, spraying a little bit of elephant snot on our feet. It would be gross if it weren’t an incredible elephant that was snotting on us.
Finally, we were taken to a small pond where we bathed How-Ko. We were given a bucket and a brush, and How-Ko simply laid down in the water and let us brush him off. His skin was so rough; apparently we had to brush pretty hard for him to even be able to notice it. As we were brushing How-Ko, another elephant and trainer came over towards us. The elephant sucked up the cold pond water through its nose, and then sprayed it all over us. This is the moment that most people probably think about when dreaming about a Southeast Asia trip; getting water blown on them while bathing an elephant in a small pond. It was cool!
After this, we had nice lunch at the elephant park and then were taken back to Chiang Mai. Although relatively expensive, this day-trip was well worth it. It seemed like the animals were treated well, so that was refreshing to see. They seemed to really care about the elephants, not just as a money maker, but as animals.
Other than these two day activities, we didn’t do a whole lot in Chiang Mai. I think it’s a nice city to live in, but there is nothing spectacular about the city itself. It’s a walled city with a moat creating a box shape, originally built to keep out the Burmese invaders. The area is mountainous, meaning that there are many trekking and mountain bike tours. It’s not a place to go for a cultural experience, as the city is full of foreigners, but it’s no doubt a nice city to spend a few days in. With our cooking class and elephant park tour, we were extremely happy with our time in Chiang Mai.