Chiang Mai (Part 3) – Cooking School and Elephants

Mama Noi Cookery School

Following the suggestion of another couple staying at the B&B, we booked ourselves in for a Thai cooking class at Mama Noi Cookery School. Having always vowed to do one in the many countries of our travels, we had never gotten around to it, mainly because there were always other things on the list that were of a higher priority. So we locked it in and sat at the garden gate awaiting our pick up.

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As we were more ‘out of town’ than the others in the group, we were the last to be collected at 9am. Our first stop was the San Pa Khoi Markets where we learned about some of the produce used in Thai cooking and that we would be using in our class. Our teacher, Momay, was energetic and had a great sense of humour. Being such a teacher’s pet, I do love a bit of question time in class – I knew which was hot basil and which was sweet basil, and I could identify the coriander by the scent, even though it looked nothing like the coriander I knew from home (it had a long wide leaf). After our little lesson, we were given free time to wander the markets ourselves before heading to the school.

We drove a little out of town to the cooking school venue, a large property with an organic garden and a big open room without walls where classes were held at either or both of the two cooking stations.

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While waiting for things to start, I played with some of the nine dogs on the premises, including two black and white puppies who just peed wherever they wanted to – who needs to be outside for that?! The hilarious extended dog family included several Pomeranians that had been shaved due to the hot weather, and looked like miniature lions!

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We had a fun morning learning how to make some iconic Thai dishes from scratch. We were given a choice for each course; I chose Pad Thai, coconut soup and green curry, John did hot basil stir fry, same soup, and Penang curry. Momay did an excellent job at keeping things going at a cracking pace and was masterful in handling the instructions for three different groups preparing three different dishes for each of the courses. Nothing slipped by her! We were surprised (but also kinda not!) at how much sugar is in Thai cooking – palm sugar and brown sugar, it was full of the stuff, and in every dish. I would be interested to experiment with a sugar substitute, if only for health reasons. The one thing that we don’t own that is necessary for doing this type of cooking from scratch is a gigantic mortar and pestle, and not having the space to store such a piece is an issue. Got a great bit of video of John smashing it out!

Mengrai Kilns & Sop Moei Arts

We rarely shop when we travel, mainly because we don’t need to accumulate more things! But two places that drew our attention were Mengrai Kilns and Sop Moei Arts. Mengrai Kilns is located towards the south west corner of the old city and produces a huge amount of handmade pottery products. The range of glazes and styles available at this kiln and shop was extraordinary, and I would challenge anyone to not be able to find something they fancied.

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To get to the kilns, we chose to take a songthaew – little red trucks that the locals use. You ask the driver if they are going where you want to go, if so, you ask how much, you hop in and pay him when you get there. Others hop on and off, and it’s sometimes a round about way of getting somewhere, but cheap. Our first experience was not a positive one; we didn’t know that you paid once you got there, and so handed over our cash before getting on. He stopped nowhere near the kilns but insisted that we were at our destination. John tried to show him on the map that he was not where we needed to go, and the driver insisted we were, pointing to the gate in the old city as though it was ‘just through there’. Bullshit. We just got another songthaew and didn’t pay the driver until we were delivered. Karma will deal with driver number one.

Sop Moei Arts is a textile and homewares store operated by our B&B, selling linens, cushions, placemats and useful mementos of your time in Chiang Mai. What’s so good about this store is that it is a not-for-profit organisation “which has been working with the Pwo Karen in Sop Moei district of Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand for the last 30 years. [They] collaborate with local villagers to create unique, limited edition and one off products, employing their expertise in weaving and basket making. This provides not only a sustainable source of income for the Pwo Karen but also helps keep alive their traditional craft skills, which are rapidly disappearing.” (Sop Moei Arts website).

Elephant Nature Park

There are many, many elephant sanctuaries and parks in the Chiang Mai area, and we are so glad we decided to use this operator, Elephant Nature Park. This company, the most ethical in the country, have been in operation since the 1990s, and has always been a sanctuary for rescued elephants (they now have 83). Right from the start they never offered rides or tricks with elephants, which straight away put them above the others. Well before tourists like us realised the damage such parks continue to cause, these people were truly caring for their elephants. Even now, many other parks offer a ‘swimming with elephants’ option, but this is not how elephants would naturally behave, in that they can’t do what they want, when they want – the safety of tourists comes first, and so they are still following commands from humans, and acting as trained wild beasts (and this training isn’t done with love). Bathing with elephants stopped being offered at this park in April 2018. For single day visitors, Elephant Nature Park allows the feeding of the animals, walking amongst them, controlled patting of them, and above all, observing them without interference, just as they would be in the wild. There is also the option to stay overnight for a number of days as a volunteer, if you want to fully immerse yourself in the experience.

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This sanctuary is also home to over 300 cats, 400 dogs, plus herds of water buffalo. All food served at the park is vegan and the range, amount and quality was excellent, especially considering the number of people they feed every day.

Our experience at Elephant Nature Park was wondrous, invigorating and spiritual. We learned so much about Asian elephants, the relationships they form and how they live. The oldest ‘girl’ at the park is 102 years old, and she was only rescued a few years ago, and had been doing hard labour until then. The babies are outrageously gorgeous and cheeky and it is such a delight to see them playing and annoying their mothers, sisters, aunties and nanas.

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Founder of this reserve, Sangduen ‘Lek’ Chailert, was named Asian Hero of the Year by Time Magazine in 2005, and the park has received numerous awards from institutions including the Smithsonian. If you intend to visit an elephant sanctuary, this is the one you should choose. Hopefully, soon, just as other parks are phasing out the riding and tricks, they will also soon stop the bathing with elephants options, too.

Welcome to Elephant Nature Park

Farewell Chiang Mai

It was such a luxury to be able to immerse ourselves in one place for a week, but it didn’t take that long for us to appreciate Chiang Mai and what it has to offer. It is easy to see why it is popular with expats looking for an affordable retirement location in a warm climate, the random misty sprays of water that relieve the heat when walking along the street are a bonus, too.

Accommodation: Baan Orapin Bed & Breakfast (Review on Baan Orapin)

Read our full Chiang Mai story here:

Part 1: Arrival and Initial Explorations

Part 2: Temples, Walking and Food

Part 3 (current): Cooking School and Elephants

Click on any image below to view as gallery

About bontaks

Nic is the the 'Bon' part of 'Bontaks.' Together we are Nic and John - two travel-addicted teachers who enjoy every opportunity to go places, meet people and experience life.

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