Cooking Class: Chiang Mai, Thailand

We’re excited to be headed out on the road again, and in that spirit we wanted to revisit some of our favorite moments from our adventures earlier this year. Some weeks back, we shared a cooking class we had taken in Udaipur, India. And as we’re in nostalgia mode, and I’ve got Thailand on my mind since I just spent time talking to a friend about his trip, let’s return to Chiang Mai and a fabulous cooking class we experienced there. Like our Indian class, this day out was one of the highlights of our trip to southeast Asia.

Thai dessert bowl

Looks like Thai green curry, but it’s actually dessert: sweet rice pudding with bananas and coconut milk.

Thai rice market

Dozens of varieties of rice are for sale at the market.

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Fish sauce, a key ingredient in southeast Asian cooking.

We started our cooking class at one of the many local markets, where we sampled various ingredients and drank cold, sweet Thai iced coffee. While the cooking school has an extensive garden and grows many of their own herbs and spices, they still need to shop for a few things. Many Thai homes don’t have refrigeration, so shopping each day for fresh ingredients is both a pleasure and a necessity.

Thai cooking tables

We’ll grind our curry pastes and chop our ingredients here.

We left the market and traveled by minibus to the school, where we were offered iced jasmine tea and given a tour of the property. The cooking school is perfectly set up to accommodate guests, with spaces for prep, cooking and eating together.

Thai garden chilies

Tiny, fiery Thai bird chiles. Typically, the smaller the chile, the bigger the punch.

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Fresh herbs and aromatics, just harvested.

The cooking school has acres of gardens, where they grow lemongrass, basil, coriander, mint, galangal, ginger, kaffir lime, chiles and many other ingredients for their classes.

Thai cooking kitchen

Our indoor-outdoor kitchen, with cooking stations set up for each student.

Thai ingredients board

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All of the components for the recipes we would make in class were neatly laid out for us. I emphasize this classical French technique a lot in my own cooking classes: it’s called mise-en-place, and it literally means “to put everything in its place.” When you’re cooking, assemble all of your ingredients like this in advance; it may seem tedious and time-consuming, but it actually makes preparing your dish much, much easier. Trust me.

Thai cutting board spoon

Fresh herbs and tamarind paste, like fish sauce, are key to classic Thai cooking.

Thai pestle mortar table

Although you can of course make curry paste in a blender, traditionally it’s prepared in a stone mortar and pestle.

Thai pestle mortar

Grinding aromatics for red curry paste.

Thai wok stir-fry veg

A wok allows for quick, high heat, so vegetables and proteins remain crisp and fresh.

Thai wok stir-fry tofu

Pad thai, a favorite Thai dish. In Thailand it’s not quite as sweet as it often is in America.

Thai red curry

Vegetarian red curry soup. Good Thai food is most often a delicate balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet.

Craving some Thai food after reading this? Me too. Try here, here or here. And if you have the chance, definitely book a cooking class on your next adventure. It’s well worth the time and money to cook and eat like a local, if only for a few hours.

32,831 miles later

About eight months ago, we decided to put our regular lives on hold for a brief period and venture out to see the world again. We were heartsick and weary and in desperate need of a break from pretty much everything except each other. So we gave away our chickens, threw a few clothes in a backpack and locked up our house. And thus it happened that on a chilly January day, we left Colorado for Japan.

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Colorado

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Japan

In Japan, we visited monkeys in hot tubs and worked on farms. We ate ramen and tempura and so many other delicious things. We walked Tokyo and Kyoto and fell deeply, completely in love with a country so strange and different and welcoming and lovely that we cannot wait to return.

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New Zealand

From Japan, we flew to New Zealand. We rented a ragged campervan and drove the length and breadth of the country. We stumbled on an old sheep station and did some stunning walks and learned how macadamia nuts grow. And we discovered that we are perfectly content to live in a campervan…and we plan to do that again soon, too.

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Cambodia

After New Zealand, we were off to southeast Asia. We started in Cambodia with Angkor Wat and we also saw interesting things being made, like incense and rice noodles and tofu. Oh, and it was hot. (At least we thought so until we got to India, where we learned what heat really is.)

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Vietnam

We traveled overland to Vietnam, where we jumped on trains, dodged motorbikes, devoured street food and struggled to learn more about a conflicted country with a conflicted history.

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Thailand

Then it was time for a brief rest in Thailand; we went to more markets and bicycled through rice paddies and learned how to make handmade paper. We didn’t ride any elephants but we loved our time on the Banana Pancake Trail.

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India

No matter what, we weren’t ready for the heat and noise and crush and total sensory assault that is India. We’ve never traveled anywhere that we loved and hated in equal measure – sometimes in the exact same moment – and this complicated country has for certain gotten under our skin. We’ll be back here, too, and much better prepared this time.

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Spain

We flew from India to England, with a brief jaunt to gorgeous Madrid. This is one hell of a city…we miss drinking canas and eating jamón y queso at 2AM with hundreds of other people in the city’s beautiful plazas.

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England

We finished with some restorative time in the Midlands’ lush, rolling hills, where the innumerable shades of intense green defy belief. Hours of walking with only cows and sheep for company and then perhaps a brief stop at the local pub for a pint of Tiger. It’s not the worst way to spend a day.

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Colorado

And that brings us to now. We’ve been home for about three weeks and we’re struggling to adjust. This is not the country we left; it has been immensely challenging to reconcile the joy and freedom and lovely people of our travels with the rage and divisiveness and fear currently smothering all of us like a dense fog. But we’re back on our bikes, we’re volunteering on a goat farm and we’ve planted our garden. And this fall, we’ll be out on the road again to search for our farm property in earnest. Thanks for joining us on our travels over these past months and please stay tuned, friends, as our journey has just begun. We’re off to find Quiet Farm.

The photos we didn’t take

N took a lot of remarkable photos during our round-the-world trip, but you won’t see us riding elephants, cradling sea turtles, posing for selfies with tiger cubs or swimming with captive dolphins. (We’ve certainly swum with wild dolphins in the middle of the ocean, but we don’t have the photos to prove it.)

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Animal tourism is all of a sudden a hot topic. Last year, SeaWorld announced that it would cease its controversial orca captive breeding program. In May, Ringling Brothers Circus performed its last show; ticket revenue had dwindled for years once the animal attractions were eliminated. And last autumn, TripAdvisor – one of the world’s largest ticket sellers for tourist attractions worldwide – announced that they would no longer sell tickets to most animal attractions. All of these stories, and many more, clearly indicate that knowledge about this topic is growing, and quickly.

A recent Oxford University study indicated that between two and four million visitors per year pay to visit animal attractions that are considered harmful to animal welfare. Most of this is done out of ignorance, not cruelty. If you’re an American tourist, for example, you might assume that other countries have strict standards for the animals’ health and wellbeing (even though America doesn’t). The reality, however, is that most animal attractions are in desperately poor countries, and the “trainers” might be impoverished people simply looking to feed their family. The possibility of strict regulations, competent oversight or of punishments meted out for violations, is laughable just about everywhere.

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As such, animal tourism was a major issue during much of our trip, particularly in southeast Asia. If you visit Thailand for the first time, one of the things you’ll notice quickly is that elephants are ubiquitous. They’re used in high-end art and on cheap tourist trinkets.

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Elephants advertise beer here too.

Their elegant silhouette can be seen everywhere, and nowhere more glaringly than in the racks and racks of tourist brochures found outside just about every restaurant and guesthouse in Chiang Mai, where these photos were all taken. (Please know that elephant riding and other abusive animal tourism is available all over Asia; we just spent the most time in Thailand and therefore found its constant and unrelenting promotion here particularly overwhelming.)

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Look at all the options you have! Definitely go for the cheapest one. The animals like it there best.

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Notice words like happysanctuary and home? These places are anything but.

Many people don’t know that elephants aren’t physiologically designed to be ridden. Despite seeming sort of like a giant, floppy horse, elephants’ spines aren’t built to support weight. Plus, elephants are fundamentally wild animals, and in order to be “domesticated” enough for tourists, they have their spirits broken. They’re also naturally social creatures with intricate familial relationships, and in these camps they typically exist in solitude. And adult females are routinely slaughtered in order to capture wild calves. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the idea. Elephants are not supposed to be a tourist attraction.

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Tired of this lecture? We haven’t even discussed cuddling tiger cubs yet! Tigers aren’t like house cats and they’re not thrilled about you pawing them. Most of the “tiger sanctuaries” in Asia sedate the tigers before letting the tourists in, just to ensure that the creatures are docile enough to avoid incidents. Oh, and sometimes they’re heavily involved in wildlife trafficking, too! Really some good people here. Absolutely give them your money.

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Don’t these look like fun? The animals are absolutely thrilled to have such an opportunity to enhance your vacation.

Or perhaps you’d rather donate your money a little closer to home, to a place like Lion’s Gate in Colorado, which recently euthanized all of its animals even after other sanctuaries volunteered to take the lions, tigers and bears. These people do not care a fig about animal welfare, and don’t let the cute pictures make you think otherwise. Animal attractions rake in billions of dollars every year, and since there is massive profit to be made from charging people to “experience” (i.e. unintentionally mistreat) animals, it will continue to happen.

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Could we discuss how animal tourism provides jobs and livelihoods in some of the world’s poorest countries? Of course. Should we talk about zoos, which in some places are top-notch research and breeding facilities and in other places absolute horror shows, especially when the population is starving? Sure. Maybe we can discuss the fact that – at least in America – we raise animals for food in horrifying conditions and most people aren’t particularly bothered about that so why shouldn’t we mistreat them for our entertainment, too? And in response to all those hypotheticals, I would argue: because we as humans are better than that. Or at least we should be.

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The advertisements for the animal attractions are literally everywhere.

People who visit animal tourism attractions are typically people who love animals. They want to get up close and personal with fascinating creatures they don’t often encounter, and they’re willing to pay for that privilege. But the Oxford study demonstrated that as many as 80% of these people will visit animal attractions and post positive reviews online, without acknowledging the risks to the animals’ health and welfare. They argue that they really love tigers – they were even born in the Year of the Tiger! – so just one selfie with a drugged tiger cub won’t hurt. Because it shows their social media feed how much they love tigers! It is simply not acceptable, friends. Just as the way America currently raises most of its animals for food isn’t acceptable, neither is this.

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If you made it all the way to the end of this post, thank you. We’ve written about this because we think it’s important and we hope you do too. Please, if you’re considering visiting any sort of animal tourism attraction – whether in the U.S. or overseas – do your research, and don’t just fool yourself with glowing online reviews. Use your common sense and ask yourself whether a large, predatory and naturally solitary animal like a tiger really wants to be handled by human beings for endless hours each day. Not all animal attractions are necessarily poorly managed or abusive, but the bad ones definitely outweigh the good ones.

We say it a lot, but vote with your wallet – refuse to support organizations or attractions that promote any sort of animal cruelty (looking at you, Tyson, Hormel and countless others). This is especially relevant if you’re traveling in the Third World, but as we know from films like Blackfish, we’re to blame here in the U.S. as well. We write a lot about animal welfare on this site, and that’s true not only for what we eat, but what we exploit for entertainment, too. How you choose to spend your money matters, always – and the recent policy changes from major companies like SeaWorld and TripAdvisor shows that they’re paying attention to your choices. Use those choices wisely.

Scenes from the Banana Pancake Trail

We’ve never claimed to be the world’s most adventurous travelers, and our travel in southeast Asia definitely adhered to the classic Banana Pancake Trail. Nevertheless, we had a phenomenal time here and loved seeing countries that were new to both of us. We visited Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand in just under a month; below, some of our favorite images from this portion of the trip. We’re off to India!

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Illuminated lanterns in Hoi An’s Old Quarter.

Hoi An, near Da Nang on Vietnam’s central coast, was most certainly our favorite place in the country. We loved its antiquated feel and the charming Old Quarter, which is decorated with tens of thousands of brightly colored lanterns hung all over the shops and streets. Strolling here after sunset was such a pleasure.

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A fruit vendor in Hoi An.

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Early morning gardening in Vietnam.

In Hoi An, we participated in a sunrise bicycle tour that took us to the daily market, an organic farm and out to the rice paddies. Truthfully, most small village farms in developing countries are organic because labor there is cheap and chemicals are expensive. In the U.S., unfortunately, the opposite is true.

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The stunning interior of a village temple outside of Siem Reap.

This gorgeous temple was on a dusty road leading out of Siem Reap; from the outside, you’d never know that the interior was this incredible. Each fresco had a number painted in the corner; this indicated the amount of money raised by the village to pay for that particular painting.

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Vietnam’s favorite son is absolutely revered in this country.

Vietnam’s national hero, Ho Chi Minh, is celebrated all over the country but nowhere more so than in his namesake museum in Hanoi. The museum is one of the strangest and darkest – both in terms of actual light and the overall mood – places we’ve ever visited. It’s an unsettling combination of blatant propaganda and modern art installation, and worth seeing just for the weirdness.

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See how dark this museum is?

The placard on this exhibit in the Ho Chi Minh Museum read, in part, “The models in this hall give visitors information about how scientific and technical achievements have been made use of for peaceful and beneficial purposes. The models at the same time condemn those who have utilized these achievements for aggressive and destructive purposes.” What?

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A ferocious temple guardian in Chiang Mai.

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Look closely: the labeling on these boats in Hoi An lets everyone know you’re a tourist.

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Trainspotting might be a bit risky in Vietnam.

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Adding decoration to our handmade paper.

In Thailand, we took a papermaking class and created gorgeous papers with leaves and blossoms. It’s simple and rewarding and beautiful; we’re hoping to make our own to wrap our handmade cheeses in at Quiet Farm.

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Fishing boats on the river in Nha Trang.

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One of Chiang Mai’s many elaborately decorated temples.

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Da Nang’s famous (and very expensive) Dragon Bridge changes colors – and on weekend nights, it also sprays water and breathes fire!

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We found this lion dancer at an international food festival in Vietnam.

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The building boom in Nha Trang, a beach resort popular with Russian tourists.

Vietnam is in a mad rush to modernize, so hotels are constructed at a breakneck pace. This means that not only are there hammers and saws competing with motorbike horns at all hours, but that a lot of construction is left partially finished when workers move on to the next project.

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A “skinny house” in Hanoi.

Even more common than all the new construction is making do with what’s already there. The skinny house above has been tucked in; notice that the bamboo poles are actually structural and are keeping the two buildings from leaning in. Presumably something will be quickly built in that empty space. But there’s a fancy coffee shop! With gelato!

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The exterior of the traditional lanna house we stayed at outside Chiang Mai.

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A monk studying at a temple in Phnom Penh.

Monks in orange robes with shaved heads are a common sight throughout southeast Asia; it’s amusing to see them with earbuds and mobile phones, too. Even monks have to modernize.

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Is this for here or to go?

And we leave you with this photo, and dare you not to smile. While dogs are still eaten in southeast Asia, as the region grows in economic prosperity, its people want what they perceive as middle-class luxuries – and that includes house pets. So now it’s more common here to see dogs on a leash rather than on a grill.

Street food

After the markets, street food vendors are one of the most colorful sights in southeast Asia. From fresh fruits and vegetables to juices, meat and snacks, just about anything you fancy is available from a street stall. Although you might not know exactly what you’re eating, it’s worth watching just for the show.

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A lobster stall in Nha Trang setting up for business.

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Crocodile farming – for both meat and leather – is big business in central Vietnam; the industry is definitely not PETA-approved. This enticement is outside a restaurant in Nha Trang.

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These delicious little packets contain sticky rice stuffed with bananas, eaten as a snack or dessert.

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These lovely women are running a rotee stand. Rotees in Thailand fall somewhere between a crêpe and a pancake and are filled with sweet or savory ingredients.

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Carts are set up along just about every street.

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This woman is making Vietnam’s world-famous banh mi sandwich, sold for about 75 cents.

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These tiny bananas (about the length of a finger) are so much more flavorful than the standard Cavendish variety we get at home.

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Fancy some whiskey or red wine with your street food meal? You can have it.

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Perhaps you’d like a meatball skewer?

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Salted whole fish, ready to eat.

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Fried sweet potato, banana and other tasty treats.

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The “special meat” restaurant outside of Siem Reap. Sit, stay…good dog.

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Little sweet cakes, served hot.

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Skewers and more, ready for the grill.

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Baling sugarcane on the streets of Phnom Penh.

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The sugarcane is crushed through a press to produce delicious juice, which is flavored with fresh lime and sold in little baggies as a refreshing drink.

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Chefs demonstrate their stir-fry skills at Siem Reap’s night market.

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Honestly, I don’t know. But what colors!