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Chiang Mai – The Culture Capital of Thailand

March 10, 2011 by Chelsea Slone

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The enticing country of Thailand could leave even the most stubborn souls weak at their knees. Just one visit to this exotic paradise and you can’t help but be hooked on the fascinating culture and mouth watering cuisine. While the north will bring you an abundance of adventure, the south leaves you speechless with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. When it comes to the people, you can’t possibly count the smiles in a crowd. They are among the sweetest and most genuine you’ve ever met. And just when you think it can’t get much better the prices here, forgive me for quoting my father, will make a rabbit slap a bulldog.

Known as the culture capital of Thailand, The alluring city of Chiang Mai is where our adventures began. Located in the Northwestern area of the country, Chiang Mai’s thriving culture left us begging for more in every sense of the words… a couple more hours to spend in the night markets, one more taste of an unheard of local dishes, and just one more chance to spend time with the incredible elephants. But before beginning the many stories we have from our time in Thailand I must first tell you about the people we met along the way. As a custom, Thai people greet their peers and anyone else they come into contact with by pressing their hands together as if they are going to pray and slightly bowing their head and upper body to say hello. Might I also mention this is never done without a smile. The people are filled with generosity. It wouldn’t be uncommon for someone to offer help if you’re an obvious tourist, and they aren’t looking to harm you or talk you into buying something, they just genuinely want you to have a good time. You will often find the only thing the Thai people really want from you is a smile. So, now that you have a glimpse of the amazing people here, may the rest of the stories begin.

Upon arriving in Chiang Mai our first day, we immediately found ourselves hungry and exhausted after hours of traveling. We knew it was our first night there, and no matter how tired we were, we would still manage to get a little taste of this place before bed. After a little help to point us in the right direction of the city’s action we sat out from where we were staying, and after walking a short five blocks we began to realize we really weren’t in Australia anymore… After spending a month in an English speaking country we had become once again accustomed to no language barriers issues. Not only was this not English, it wasn’t Spanish, or French either, It was symbols…Thai symbols. Reality had set in and we knew it wouldn’t be a walk in the park anymore.

After a good hour of exploring the city getting our feel for the new place, we came across hundreds of booths lined up on the street and people beginning to unload their goods. I immediately get excited, thinking we’ve found Saturday Night market. I had been telling Tyler over and over how I wanted to go because they say it’s much more of a local feel that the other markets. However, as we get closer we come across a huge ally that opened up into a square filled with even more booths of people and their many goods to sell. Then we see the large sign “Night Bazaar”. It was the huge Night Bazaar I had also read so much about about! You could find everything from faux Ray Bans and purses like the under ground Chinatown in NYC to women soaking their feet in huge fish filled tanks to improve circulation. It’s name fit the description, it was bazaar. Within an hour the people began to swarm in from all directions, and we realized it was just beginning of the night market. We continued to walk around finding jewelry, clothing, and other booths filled with nicknacks. They also had a food court type of setting in the middle where many people, mainly tourists, began to sit down for dinner. The entire night bazaar area was surrounded by restaurants, so Tyler and I did some research and found a place nearby to have our first taste of the authentic cuisine. After some pushing and shoving we made our way to lovely dinner where we decided to try out our usual favorites from back home, red curry, Tom yum gui soup, and pad thai. After warning each other the usuals may not be on any menu… We found ourselves delighted after dinner by the fact that we may actually have experienced some Thailand authenticity back home.

I have had a list of the things I wanted to do when we visited Thailand for quite some time…. spend a day at an elephant farm, take a cooking class, and get a massage (believe me or not this is a common tourist attraction here). However, when we woke up the next morning we decided to spend the first day sightseeing and exploring the famous Buddhist temples. Allocating an entire day to explore the ornate temples located throughout the city gave us the opportunity to learn about the history and religion of the people. Visiting the temples during the morning allowed us to see how the monks interact during their daily routines. Most all of the temples in Chiang Mai are located in what they call the “old city”. I found it odd that amongst all of the clutter and craziness in the streets there would sit a beautiful, often bright colored temple. Each temple was encompassed by a wall which surrounded the entire area with an opening or gate in just the front to allow for visitors and for worship. The most famous, and in my opinion the most beautiful temple was the Wat Phra Singh. It’s fame is particularly due to the city’s most revered Buddha imagine, Phra Singh, the Lion Buddha. Built in 1345 by King Pa Yo in honor of his father, the temple was designed using classic Lanna architecture, also known to be the style of northern Thailand. The lion buddha is considered one of the most beautiful examples of Lanna religious art, due to its human like features and lotus shaped topknot. To visit the temples there are a few throughly enforced rules in which you must abide. Women and men both are to wear appropriate clothing covering shoulders and knees, you must take off your shoes before entering, there is to be no public display of affection, and when in the front of the temple you must sit with your legs folded in respect of others worshiping. Of course, we abided by these rules in respect to the local people.

Cooking class time! The next morning we jumped out of bed in a hurry to head to the local food market and begin our much anticipated cooking class. Together with our class, consisting of about eight people plus the two teachers, made our way around the market learning about the different ingredients found in Thai dishes. The process of making coconut cream and milk was just fascinating to see in action. The coconuts are cut in half and rinsed in water, shred through one machine, and then another. If making cream the finely shredded coconut is mixing with very hot water, and to make milk the coconut must be sent through the shredding machines a few more times and then mixed with hot water. The different types of fresh produce in the market were unbelievable. I had never seen produce like this before. They had jelly mushrooms, the longest sting beans you’ve ever seen, and thai ginger which with the pink horn like structures looks and smells much different than the fresh ginger back at home. They even had fresh coriander, which I had never seen before. After leaving the market we were taken to their home right outside the city, where we each chose from a list the six dishes we would each like to cook that day. I chose: Tom yum soup with coconut milk, spring rolls, larb gai, chicken with cashews, red curry, and coconut sticky rice. Tyler chose: creamy hot and sour soup, pad thai, larb gai with pork, chicken with ginger, jungle curry, and bananas in coconut milk. As we learned how to cook each individual dish it was interesting to see that many of the ingredients were the same for every dish. Just a few spices or ingredients added or not added to a dish would make the flavor completely different. This fact held true for all dishes except the curries. Each type of curry had very different ingredients, all which we had to finely chop and process into a paste by hand. We also learned that in the northern parts of Thailand the food is more oily and in the south it is more creamy. However, salt was only added to only one of the dishes we made throughout the entire day and butter was not to be found. The ingredients were all very fresh, unlike the sodium filled Thai food found in the the rest of the world. I will have to admit sugar was used in most every dish prepared, but they say thats why the Thai people are so sweet =) At the end of the day we were given a cook book before leaving of everything we had learned, so I hope when I am back home I will be able to get the ingredients to give this all a try again!

On Sunday night we decided to take a trip to the famous Sunday night market and see what it was all about. They say this market is less touristy and also held on Saturday nights as well. The locals often gather at the market on these two nights to eat dinner, socialize, and drink in the beer gardens. There are street vendors selling everything found in the Night Bazaar, but for a much cheaper price. Unlike Night Bazaar you will find local musicians preforming with different instruments and singing here while many of the local people will gather around to listen. Too this was the only market we were able to find local artists selling their paintings. Throughout the main street of Sunday Market there were side streets opening up into a square selling various things to eat or drink. One stand in particular had plates of a dozen fried quail eggs, and another had an array of fried goose… I’m talking the entire goose. Deciding we had to eat dinner there, we stuck to the more average dishes like stir fry pork and vegetables and fried banana for desert. In the many markets we came across in Chiang Mai this one was by far the most authentic and entertaining one of them all.

After a few days spent here it was time for our much anticipated elephant experience. Before planning this experience I had read many articles on how tourism was affecting the life of elephants in Thailand specifically. Knowing this information I found an elephant farm centered against animal cruelty. The company offers the chance to be an “elephant owner” for a day, and proceed to say you won’t see elephants dancing on two feet or painting with their trunks, but you can spend time with them and learn all there is to know about these fascinating creatures. When first arriving at our carefully chosen elephant camp we learned many saddening facts about the elephants of the area. Many of the local companies abuse the elephants, thus causing the population to decline by fifty percent in only forty years, seems like a long time but it’s less than a decade. The declining rate is outrageous, and it is mainly due to tourism. The companies take the elephants from the wild, and train them to do all sorts of tricks, but keep them in tiny spaces giving them little room to move, causing them to die from ingrown toenails, improper exercise, and various other reasons. This may sound a little odd that the health of an elephants toenails could affect its life, but elephants being such large creatures, put literally tons of weight on there two front feet and need space to exercise, naturally trimming their toenails into shape by walking around in lakes and on rocks. Another cause of death by keeping them in such small spaces is overfeeding them. Elephants must digest there food daily, and if they become constipated for longer than three days they can die from bloating in their stomach. Elephants also need to live in groups of other elephants for their mental health and happiness. There are specific time periods for them to reproduce, and when a female is in heat she will chose a male and disappear into the mountains for around ten days to become pregnant. When being held in cages this process is impossible therefore there is no reproduction, which can then lead to extinction. Elephants can be found in many other areas of the world, but the number of of elephants found in Thailand are drastically dropping.

After learning about the elephant troubles in Thailand, we were then taught a little bit about elephants in general. How to approach them, how to know if they are in a good mood or bad mood, healthy or not healthy, how to bathe them, how to feed them, and finally how to get on their back and take them for a walk. We were first introduced to our elephant, and given a basket of food to introduce ourselves to them. My elephant’s name was Chompo, a nine year old female with a lot of personality. When they first pointed her out to me she was literally dancing around in the pasture of elephants, bobbing her head up and down and around. I walked over to her slowing greeting her with food and making sure she was in a good mood. When I yelled Chompo she would yell back at me, and then proceeded to wave her ears back and forth, which told me she was happy that day. I continued to walk over and feed her the basket of fruit and vegetables. After feeding Chompo I went to find Tyler and see what his elephant was like. He was given a fifteen year old male named Bonyen, who was massive with two long tusks. After seeing his, I was pretty content with my little dancer!

Soon after meeting our elephants we were taught the commands to use for walk, stop, sit, and lay down. We were also taught how to check there poo to see if they were healthy or not, which was actually not AS bad as you would imagine. After checking the necessary and brushing the dirt off our elephants back we led them to the river for a bath. On the way to the river Chompo started to get pretty excited the closer we would get to the water, and when we were almost there she took off. I just backed off letting her do her thing, considering shes a lot bigger than my five pound yorkie. My helpful assistant (the real elephant trainer) helped me calm her down and lay down for a bath. Boy was this a challenge. We quickly grabbed our baskets and brushes to begin the bathing. Tyler’s elephant might have been huge but once he sat down he wasn’t going anywhere, mine on the other hand was even dancing laying down in the water. Not to mention she would randomly stand up when she felt like it, and I would cringe knowing just one wrong move and my foot was toast. Tyler just laughed, and continued to bathe Bonyen with no probelms. When we were finished, Tyler and I handed the camera over for a picture of us and our beautifully cleaned elephants when suddenly Chompo begins to spray water everywhere. We were drenched, but couldn’t stop laughing. Who knew an elephant could be so mischievous! Soon we headed out of the water to learn a little more about how exactly we were to take our elephant on a walk.

There are two ways to get on an elephant, using its trunk or its leg. Either way the elephant was the one helping you make it up there, so this is when the trust comes into play. The leg way looked much easier, as the elephants would lift there leg up for you to use as a stair and then once you got high enough up the staircase you hike your leg up and over like you would to get on a horse. The trunk way however looked a tad bit more tricky. The elephant would lift its trunk up a little for you to step on and then once you took your step the elephant would lift you up on his back where you would then be sitting backwards and have to turn around. Who knows why I let Tyler talk me into trying the trunk way, but I did. Somehow Chompo got me up there safe and sound, and I am going to have to say it felt somewhat graceful. The ride however, took some getting used to. You are supposed to ride an elephant close to its neck with your feet behind its ears and hold on to the top of its head, making you feel like you are going to fall of the front any second. Thankfully for amatures like us they also tied a rope around the elephants mid section for us to hang onto. The ride was going pretty good minus the fact Tyler’s elephant ate every plant in sight, and mine would occasionally wander off the path. Then we came to a creek, my oh so crazy water loving Chompo went a little crazy! She starting bouncing her head up and down, drinking water, and taking breaks to spray it everywhere. I somehow managed to stay on and found it just as hilarious as everyone else. She wasn’t going to hurt me or knock me off, she just wanted to play. After about an hour or so later we reached the waterfall where we got off the elephants to eat lunch and let them play in the water. After their hard work we decided to feed them all of our leftovers too. After an entire day around all the elephants it was not hard to be comfortable around these creatures, playing with them, feeding them, and even swimming with them if you wanted. The idea of becoming accustomed to an elephant by your side for the day was crazy at first, but it was very easy to fall in love with them all.

At the end of the day we road back to the elephant farm with our elephants. Once we got in the area, Chompo was egar to run and see her friends, so I rode with Tyler on Bonyen the rest of the way. He really was huge, but as sweet as he could be. After we made it back, the elephant trainers took us to see the new baby elephants that had just been born a couple of months ago. They were absolutely adorable! I could have played with them forever. One was a little bashful, and the other would run straight into you to get some attention. We were able to play with them for about an hour and then sadly our day with the elephants had to come to an end. Even though it was hard work at times, the day flew by. We had an amazing time getting the opportunity to spend time with these incredible creatures. The whole day was truly an unbelievable experience for the both of us.

Spending one day as an elephant owner and another as a thai chef, and many more exploring the city we were really able to get a taste of what life is like in Thailand, at least in the northern parts. From what we have seen so far it’s no wander why Travel and Leisure rated Thailand one as the worlds top retirement havens for 2011. As for now, we are headed for one little day trip to a small town close to the boarder of Burma and then we are southbound and will soon update you on the beautiful beaches and culture the southern region of Thailand has to offer.

Sawasdee Ka,

T + C

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4 thoughts on “Chiang Mai – The Culture Capital of Thailand

  1. Wow Tyler! Just found your site…incredible! Thanks for sharing your travels, it really brightens the ol’ windowless world of Walmart. Hope you two have a safe and amazing journey!

  2. OMG Chelsea- These pics of you two on the elephants are incredible!!! I am just so thrilled for you guys to be experiencing these fabulous things all around the world! How will you ever be able to decide which experience is your fave? And the cooking class??? WOW!! Sounds like so much fun. You should do that everywhere you go. Loving keeping up with you guys!!! Love – Susan

  3. Good Gosh!!!!! you guys are having way to much fun. I can’t believe you guys are riding elephants. I have heard that Thailand is beautiful. Stay safe, keep me updated as you have been so that I know all is OK…

    Love you guys,

    Richard & Richard

  4. Incredible. I just read this post 3 times…your posts (& model pictures) are the biggest distraction from my studio work ever! I love it! Your story telling literally plopped me up on one of the elephants and I every post I learn something new. Entertaining and Educational. Thialand looks out of control amazing.

    keep’em coming!!!!

    love yall,

    Anna

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