I really only travel for the food.
Alright, that’s not true. But eating is one of my favorite things about traveling. So right after I booked a ticket to Thailand, I booked a one-day course at Chiang Mai’s Thai Farm Cooking School (TFCS).
The TFCS van picked me up from my hostel promptly at 8:30. In about half an hour, it was packed. On the way to the farm, we made a quick stop at a local market:
(Not your average grocery store)
Aisles were organized calamities of produce, seasoning, rice, meat, and kitchen essentials. Instead of being shelved, items were terraced into small hills, sorted into buckets, or laid flat on uneven tables.
Our instructor pointed out a couple ingredients that we would be using in class. “What dis? Dis fish sauce,” she said, holding up a small, amber-colored tube. “Eat spoonful every morning. Make you powerful.”
The trip from the market to the farm was short. Nested against an organic garden, the school’s working area was a shaded patio furnished with stoves, sinks, and wooden tables. Before the cooking began, we were given a list of meals to choose from, a list that included dishes like red, yellow, and green curry; tom yam and galangal coconut soup; sweet and sour chicken (or tofu), phad thai, chicken with basil leaves, spring rolls, papaya salad… (the list goes on).
Highlights: 1) Prep. The prep work was a treat. To give us an idea of the individual flavors we’d be working with, the instructor took us through the garden and made us touch, smell, and taste various herbs and vegetables. To prepare our curry, we pounded ingredients with pestle and mortar. The fresh aroma of peppers and herbs filled the air. 2) Options. Beyond choosing which meals we wanted, we were also given the choice to substitute ingredients (soy for fish sauce, mushroom for oyster sauce, tofu for meat). I didn’t feel locked into anything I wouldn’t like. 3) The Instructor. She killed the jokes. This was one of my favorites:
“What dis?” she said, holding a leaf. “Dis kaffir leaf. No eat. For flavor.” She picked up a clove. “What dis? Dis garlic.” She picked up an herb. “What dis? Dis Thai basil, also for flavor,” she said. “And dis? What dis? Thai eggplant.” Then she pointed to a bowl of chicken meat. “And dis? What dis? Dis Thai chicken. Meeeoow, meeoow.”
All in all, each course took five to ten minutes to cook (perfect for the impatient).
(Left to right: coconut galangal chicken soup, yellow curry, basil chicken, and mango with sticky rice)
The whole experience—transportation, tour of the market, cooking instruction, and six hardy meals—cost 1,300 baht. $37.
On the ride back to the hostel, I hit it off with an American couple—Mitch and Rachael—who mentioned that they wanted to visit the “wat” (temple) on Doi Suthep the next morning. Twenty hours later, we met in front of a 7-Eleven.
[Sidenote: 7-Elevens are everywhere in Thailand. They’re like lighthouses for adrift Westerners. Beacons in the night. Lost? No worries, there’s a 7-Eleven down the road. Dehydrated? 7-Eleven’s got your back (HUGE bottles of water for about 40 cents). Out of toothpaste? Check. Junk food? Check. Beer? Check. Existential crisis? Just go outside, close your eyes, and walk in any direction. You’ll end up on the front step of a 7-Eleven (or hit by a tuk-tuk, but if that happens, guess where you can buy bandaids?).]
The three of us and a few others loaded into a songthaew (a red pickup truck repurposed into a taxi) and took the tortuous ride up to that sacred mountain Doi Suthep. What’s so sacred about the mountain, you ask?
It all began hundreds of years ago, when a monk named Sumanathera heard from God in a dream. In the dream, God tells Sumanathera to find a relic. The monk finds the relic, which turns out to be the magical shoulder bone of Buddha. Hearing of this, a king requests that the bone be moved to his kingdom. Upon arrival, the bone breaks into two pieces. The king puts the larger of the two pieces on the back of a white elephant and releases the elephant into the jungle. Legend has it that the elephant climbed Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times, and dropped dead. Fearing that this was an omen, the king built a temple in the elephant’s stead. And thus rose the temple of Doi Suthep.
The temple was rich with symbology. Chimes sang across the court while visitors filled burning lamps with oil. Everything was dressed in scarlet and gold. In one room, a monk blessed kneeling participants by flicking water at them (Mitch got in on that experience). Incense filled the air. Artwork of dragons and kings memorialized stories of buddhist folklore. If I ever go back, I’m taking a mythologist with me. There would be so much to unpack.
After about an hour of wandering the premise, the crew and I made the journey back to Chiang Mai. We decided to meet later that evening at the North Gate Jazz Club.
If you like live music and an excuse to socialize, the Jazz Club is the place to go. With a variety of seating options—on the sidewalk, next to the stage, upstairs—it’s an easy place to get cozy and unwind from a day of hiking in the intense heat. It’s also a congregation hub for backpackers.
I arrived around 9:00, grabbed a drink, and enjoyed a few moments up-close to the band before reuniting upstairs with Mitch and Rachael. It was our last night in Chiang Mai. Happily exhausted, we sat in silence for a while, listening to the opening band’s improv. At some point, my entire body started tingling. Maybe it was the sunburn. Or the music. Or the rum. Or maybe it was dawning on me that I was there, in Chiang Mai, twelve timezones away from home, amongst a people whose language I could not speak, with a couple I had previously never known.
I eventually bid my new friends farewell. From the back of a tuk-tuk, I watched the Old City slip by one last time—a theater of florescent lights dancing upon the the shadowy canal, a monk on the back of a moped, the smell of fish sauce wafting from the market into the streets.
“Kop khun krap,” I said to the driver as he drove away. And then, with a smile on my face, I walked softly off the main road and into the welcoming dark.