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Thailand – Chiang Mai

Cooking with Elephants

sunny 35 °C

Chiang Mai is a Thai city at heart. Despite plenty of tour operators and traditional massage shops, it has a distinctly Thai feel. With plenty of traditional northern Thai food, even the Bangkok residents come to up here to sample it. The old town is a precise square full of alley ways and temples with a moat surrounding it and the remains of the old city walls at various sections. It is a gateway to lots of trekking, elephant adventures and getting amongst Thai people.

We arrived into the bus station and quickly secured our tuktuk into the old town. We hadn’t booked any accommodation but arrived at one we had looked into earlier. It was fine enough so we checked in and headed out for a walk through the streets to get a feel for the place.

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In the morning we once again opted for our weapon of choice for exploring, the trusty scooter! This time we headed out of town to the hills overlooking the city. This turned out to be a great decision, simply for the ride alone. The road was a curvy, well paved road (apart from the little bit that had fallen down the cliff) that snaked up the mountain allowing for some fun biking. I started to cop a bit of abuse from Tanya for going too fast and joking around about sticking my knee out to scrape round the corners though.

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We stopped off at a waterfall halfway up the road which was nice, but not really worth the 100THB entry fee each. We continued upward until we reached the temple that sit high on the hill overlooking Chiang Mai below. The temple was very gold and very Buddhalicios. We stayed for a little while before getting back on the scooter and enjoying the ride back downhill.

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As we had the scooter for 24hrs, we went back out again at night to find the night markets to the east of the old town. We parked the scooter up (undercover) just a minute before the night sky opened up and sent the stall owners running to get their awnings up and water tight. We took refuge in the closest building which happened to be a McDonalds. An hour passed and the rain finally eased off. We ventured back out through the markets crossing streets which now resembled fjords. After a successful night at the markets, Tanya was now the owner of some happy pants and a hippy bag. We biked back to the guesthouse through the big puddles that covered the streets.

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In the morning we were picked up from the guesthouse and driven 1 and a half hours out to the Mae Taeng Valley where we were going to be lucky enough to spend a day with elephants. The Elephant Nature Park was set up by a little Thai lady called Lek in the 1990’s and rescues injured, abused and distressed domesticated elephants. There are 34 elephants currently in the herd all with a story that pulls at the heart strings.

To understand elephants in Thailand, you need to be aware of a couple of things. The elephant is so deeply rooted in Thai culture that it is a symbol of luck and revered in many statues at sacred sites. However, the elephant has been a working animal in the building of the Thai kingdom. At the turn of the 20th century there were 100,000 elephants (domestic and wild) in Thailand, now that number is down to 5,000. Having had 95% of the population wiped out in just 100 years, it’s hard to see there being much of a future for them. Elephants were the principle vehicle of the logging industry, but a ban on logging literally sent the elephants onto the streets without a job any more. As they are considered working animals no different to a buffalo or ox, they have no protection against cruelty or abuse as the laws do not prevent this for working animals. Finally, the training methods for elephants are shackled by the traditional methods where pain, hurt and a good dose of black magic are what break the elephant into obedience.

We learnt these facts on the drive out to the elephant park on a DVD that was played as well as more information about Lek and the Park. Before long we were driving down a dusty track and could easily spot elephants down by the river on our left. We pulled into the park and were shown into the giant gazebo that houses the staff and visitors. You can pay to visit the park for a day (as we were doing) or stay for longer with overnight and weeklong volunteer projects on offer. There are no basket rides, elephant shows and tricks here, this park is solely for the elephants to have an easy life after many years of hard knocks.

We had about 8 of us in our group and no sooner had we put our bags down, our guide took us strolling through a gate and elephants started to come towards us! Just before this we had gone over the rules for being around the elephants. As much as elephants sound cute, as the biggest walking animal on the planet, they are pretty bloody intimidating when they come walking towards you. The guide had grabbed a few bananas for us and the elephants were keen for some of the fruit. We stood there for 10 minutes with most people a bit afraid to get close to the elephants. I was really enjoying the closeness that you get standing right in front of these mammals and even started to feed one female elephant by putting the bananas straight into her mouth rather than just giving it to her trunk. Although touching her huge slimy tongue wasn’t the best part of this experience.

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Elephants need a lot of food!

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Covering itself in mud

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We walked a bit further into the field where the veterinary clinic is and one of the elephants was having its nails buffed by one of the volunteers. As we stood there two other elephants came over to see us. One of them (Medo) was blind in one eye and had a broken back leg and dislocated backbone. Seeing the poor old lady moving along slowly really tugs at your heartstrings. The guide said that she broke her leg in a logging accident, and because she couldn’t work any longer, she was sent to a breeding farm where her back was dislocated after forced mating with a big bull. The amazing thing though is the other elephant that came over (Mae Mai) had adopted her when she first came to the park and now isn’t more than a few feet away from her as she slowly walks around the park. We stood there as this pair received their lunch baskets and fed them their fruit. Being this close to an elephant you realise that they are sparsely covered in log thick hairs all over their body. Stroking their trunk, the skin is really rough and prickly with shorter hairs.

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Poor Medo with her broken back leg

We then got to go over to the feeding area for the herd of elephants that have got the young calves with them. There were two elephants born at the park 3 years ago within months of each other (1 boy and 1 girl) and this herd are separated at feeding time for the safety of the little guys. Another great experience to be able to feed the baby elephants with their cute little faces.

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Next, our group visited two elephants who were victims of land mines. A lot of illegal logging goes on around the borders where there is the danger of unexploded land mines, and to see these two with mangled feet was another difficult thing to see. At least they both have a much better way to see out the rest of their life, than being forced to continue working or left to die.

We went back to the building where our own lunch was being served. As we sat their eating our food we watched as elephants were walking past and having an inquisitive look at what the humans were doing before continuing on their way to another part of the park.

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They don’t just rescue elephants at this park

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Our final treat of the day was spending time with the elephants in the river bathing them. Armed with a bucket to splash water over the backs of the elephants, we washed them clean of their mud as they stood there or got down into the water. Another great experience to share with the animals. No sooner where they clean, they headed back out and started gathering mud to sling all over their backs again!

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After washing a few elephants, we went onto the raised boardwalk as the herd with the young elephants were coming for their wash. They might get protective of the young ones if we were in the water so it’s safer to watch from a distance. We then had our final up close and personal time with the big herd once they were out of the water. We left the park feeling incredibly privileged to have spent the day with these gentle giants and glad that in some small way our fee will hopefully go towards helping future generations of elephants. You can see the elephant herd here at http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/herd/index.htm

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Found the love of my life

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We had another full day activity the following day and were picked up from our hotel again by Mam from Asia Scenic cooking school. Now Tanya and I wouldn’t exactly call ourselves the greatest of cooks going around, but if we can learn a few Thai dishes then we would be leaving Thailand with a good souvenir. With the cooking school, you have the option of doing it in the city restaurant or at their farm. We chose the farm, and this was a good choice by far in the end. Mam first took us to the local markets to pick up some ingredients for our meals. She explained to us the various types of rice and the different pricing based on age and origin. We then got told about noodles, tofu, cane sugar, coconuts and what we can use to substitute in our country. As it turned out there were only 4 of us doing the classes today with the other couple from Queensland in Australia.

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Once we drove out to the farm, we donned our traditional hats and then walked around the garden being told about all the herbs, vegetables and fruits that were there and how they are used in Thai cooking. Mam was very good at picking off the herbs for us and giving us a lot of information.

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We sat down to have a traditional welcome snack which is a few ingredients all put in a leaf to be eaten as once. I wasn’t too sure about it at first, but as soon as I tried one, wow!! We will be doing this as a snack when we have friends over once we have a house again in Australia!

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We had a 5 course menu to cook over the day and we started off firstly with a stir fry then followed by an appetiser. I chose to cook Pad Thai (as I haven’t been able to get enough of them here in Thailand) and Tanya did a chicken and cashew nut dish. We followed that up with Tanya cooking a glass noodle salad and me preparing spring rolls from scratch, rolled, fried and served up on a plate.

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I think the pink apron just completes this scene along with Chicken and Cashew Nut and Pad Thai

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We got to eat our stir fry and then our appetisers as soon as we had cooked them. To be honest, they weren’t small portions so we were glad we had skipped breakfast to have room for 3 more courses.

We started on the rest of the meals firstly by preparing our curry pastes. Tanya was doing a green curry and I was doing a traditional northern Thai curry called a Khaw Soi. The thing about doing the curry pastes is that the base for each paste is the same, it’s just the different type of chilli for green and red curry, and for Panang and Khaw Soi you just add peanuts or chilli powder to the red chilli paste. Simple really. We started bashing all the spices in the mortar until we ended up with our respective curry paste ready to go before cutting up our vegetables ready for our soup dishes.

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Curry and Soup ready to go

We then paused with the main meals to prepare the desert. I went for coconut battered deep fried banana and Tanya made Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango. Once we had them done, it was back to our curry and soup. I made a Prawn Tom Yum and Tanya made a local style Tom Sab soup. A few minutes slaving over the hot stove and we had a curry, soup and desert ready to eat. They all tasted great, and with the dishes that the other 2 prepared, we had almost covered off all the options that the school offers.

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Final servings

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Being absolutely stuffed full from all the food we were taken back into the city and didn’t need much more for the rest of the day. We were heading further east in the morning to Chiang Rai before making the border crossing into Laos. Lets hope that goes smoothly.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – Chiang Mai turned out to be a fantastic stop on the trip. I really liked the feel of the city, much more authentic than Bangkok and the islands down south. The time spent at the elephant farm was unforgettable and really rewarding. I think that Chiang Mai had the best Pad Thai I’ve tasted, and best of all I COOKED IT!!!

Tanya – Some amazing highlights. As a city, I really liked Chiang Mai, it has a walled old town which just added to the charm. In many ways it is set up for tourists but the competition means that you wont find many cheaper cooking classes elsewhere in Thailand. Our experience with the elephants was such an incredible day.

Posted by dbgomes 08.06.2012 06:25 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand round_the_world

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