700kms later, we arrive in Thailands northern capital, Chiang Mai. The train was supposed to be about 12 hours, it was much closer to 15. I was jolted awake early in the morning and those three hours were lost in the last while of our trip. Stop. Start. Fast. Slow. Stop. Stop. Slow. Stop.. You get the picture. It was frustrating but gave me the opportunity to really take in the changing scenery and smoky sunrise.
In my previous posts, I mentioned that I broke my beloved Olympus Pen Mini E-PM1 – unfortunately, my iPhone 2 just didn’t cut it for fast (or even slow) moving trains, so I didn’t get a lot of pictures from now on.
Bangkok and Chiang Mai could have been worlds apart. The train pulled into the station slowly, and lots of smiling faces welcomed us as we walked through. Stepping outside smelt like wood fires, lush green trees, and delicately decorated gardens are spotted around the city streets.
We arrived fairly early in the morning (8 am) and went straight to our hotel but couldn’t check in. While Chiang Mai is notorious for being the home of Thailands Tiger Temple, we were not tempted to visit. We were pretty aware of the atrocious practices happening at these places which is much more than I can say for many other travellers who we encountered. Travellers who I’m sure listened to me outspokenly tell them why this and that and the same thing that happens at elephant attractions is so bad – to promptly walk and book the very same thing for that bomb Instagram photo.
Instead, we spent the day at Elephant Nature Camp. The drivers picked us, and about 10 other people, up from their office in the city. We then drove past the markets to fill the rest of the available space in the cars with bags of green bananas. While it’s a fairly long drive into “rural” Thailand, it was nice to enjoy the different landscapes and check out the local homes and roadside stalls.
At the nature camp, instead of riding the elephants, you get to really interact with them. We spent the morning hand feeding them little bananas and sugar cane stalks. Watching them enjoy the sunshine and river and then taking them for a short walk around the camp. We also got to join them in the river where they splashed, played and generally relaxed in a nice cool bath. The guides gave us buckets to dump water on the elephants and brushes to give them a back scratch, they yelled at us to get out of the way if they spotted on of the elephants about to roll over. They also scooped out rouge poops if they floated too close as well as teaching us a little more about elephant tourism in Asia.
Our afternoon was well used – cooling down in the hotel’s air conditioning and taking the opportunity to get a few clothes washed before dinner.
Our evening was spent at the fresh food markets, where we picked up our ingredients before heading out to The Best Thai Cookery School. This was one of the best things that we did in all of South East Asia – I would recommend it over and over again.
At the markets, we were taught the fundamentals of Thai cooking, what the ingredients are, how to choose the best ones, how much to pay and how to get the same ingredients when we return home.
They then drove us to a beautiful open-air outdoor kitchen (about 10 minutes out of the city) to entertain and inspire us for the evening by teaching some classic Thai dishes.
I’m now totally proficient in Tom Yung, Pad Thai, Chicken Cashew, Masaman Curry and Sticky Rice with Mango – all from scratch! The class was so much fun with jokes, hints, tricks and lots of information about cooking (traditional Thai and in general). Ever since I got home I haven’t been able to eat Thai at either of my regular haunts – half because I know how easy it is cook and half because they don’t cut it anymore.
This blog post is a part of a series I wrote while on the Contiki Asian Adventure Tour.