My daughter, Mary, arrived on December 6 to spend time with us in Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Singapore, before returning to the U.S. just before Christmas. We’re very close and I hadn’t seen her since we left home on April 2 so, of course, there was lots of excitement around her visit. We had made some plans for things to do in Chiang Mai that included getting at least one massage (of course), going on an outing with elephants, taking cooking classes, shopping, and venturing out of Chiang Mai into the beautiful and mountainous surrounding countryside. We did all of those things and then some!
Up close and personal with the elephants
Elephant riding is considered bad form these days. Unlike horses, elephants apparently don’t take easily to being ridden, which means that training them to carry riders often involves some form of abuse. Not good. The Elephant Retirement Park, where we booked a half-day outing, is, as the name suggests, primarily for elephants that are ‘retired’ show elephants or elephants that have worked in the logging industry. There is also one elephant at the retirement park, a four-year-old ‘baby,’ that was born in the facility. Since female elephants are less aggressive than the males, all of the elephants in the park are female.
The half day was to consist of getting to know the elephants, feeding them, and taking a mud bath with them. The weather that day was in the 60s and we were warned that it was probably too cold for the elephants to take a swim, which indeed, was the case. So we mostly fed the elephants bananas and sugar cane and just observed them. All in all, a fun day with these sweet and gentle giants.
“Thai-ing one on” in the Thai Kitchen
John, Mary, and I enjoy cooking, so the Thai Farm House Cooking School was a natural for us. This facility is a charming organic farm a few miles outside of the city, which made the day even more fun. We started by going to a local market and learning a little about different types of rice and the other ingredients in the food we would prepare. Next, the van took us to the farm where our cooking instructor, Fah, walked us around and showed us additional ingredients, which grow on the farm. It is interesting to know that the two primary tastes in all Thai food come down to two ingredients: the peel of kaffir lime and tamarind.
After the short course on ingredients, it was time to head into the kitchen and start cooking. Since we prefer hands-on to demonstrations, we were happy to see that everyone in the class had his or her own cooking area, utensils, and ingredients. We got to choose which curry we preferred to prepare: green curry (the green comes from thai basil), red curry (chiles provide the color), or yellow (turmeric gives the color and yellow curry includes potatoes). We each chose a different color and got started with our ingredients, sharp knives, and a mortar and pestle. After making the curries, we got to work on soup, the choices being Tom Yam, a hot and sour soup, or Tom Kha, a coconut milk-based soup. We eventually went on to complete curries, soup, pad thai (which we were told is never made with peanut butter or ketchup), and a dessert of bananas in coconut milk (kluay bod chi). An added benefit of the cooking class is that we came away knowing so much more about Thai food, what is in it, and what makes it so good. It was a really fun day in a beautiful setting and, of course, at the end we got to enjoy the delicious food we had made!
Doi Inthanon National Park
I had been itching to get out into one of Thailand’s beautiful national parks so was very excited to take a trip up to Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. Arriving at the mountain in the morning, we were surprised that the temperatures were down near freezing. We had not experienced cold in such a long and time it was a shock. The temps warmed up soon enough and the remainder of the day was comfortable, in the 60s.
We visited the king and queen chedis built for King Rama IX, the highly-revered monarch who passed away in 2016, and his wife, Siriki. The chedis themselves are lovely, but the setting and beautiful gardens are spectacular. Later in the day, we visited a village of local hill people who grow and roast delicious coffee, and went to a beautiful waterfall.
Chatting it up with a Buddhist monk
Although I don’t know how many Buddhist temples are in the city of Chiang Mai, the province reportedly has more than 300 temples. This is a staggering number in an area that is smaller than New Jersey. We were interested in a program available in a few of the temples called ‘monk chats.’ The monk chat program was begun a number of years ago to help the novice monks (usually ages 12 through 22) improve their English. The idea is that, during a set number of hours during the day, novice monks are available at a temple, sitting at tables, and anyone who is interested may come and have a conversation and can ask any questions they would like of the novice. We went down to Wat Chedi Luang, one of the oldest and most notable of the Chiang Mai temples, and found a young monk who was willing to talk to us.
Most young men (and some young women) in Thailand spend some time as a monk (or a nun). For some it’s a matter of a few days, for others, it’s many years, and for still others, it’s a lifetime. The appeal for parents encouraging their sons to become a monk is easy to understand. A young man who becomes a monk has access to a better education than most families in Thailand can afford. In addition, many rural families struggle to provide food on the table for all of the children in a large family, so having a son go off to be a monk also takes pressure off the family. The young man we spoke to was in his early twenties and is a university student studying education, not because he fully expects to become a teacher, but because the choices at his university are very limited and education seemed better than the other choices. He became a novice at age 12. He told us a little about the being a novice monk – it’s necessary to follow ten rules, which include no touching money or women, no drinking, drugs, entertainment, stealing, or lying, or participation in dancing, singing, music, or sports. For an ordained monk, the number of rules increases from 10 to a whopping 227. We asked the young monk what he found difficult in his monastic lifestyle. His answer was that none of it is difficult. It seems that, living among others following the same rules and being in community suited him. We also asked him where he learned to speak such good English. His answer: monk chats.