Prowlin’ and Chowin’ in Chiang Mai

Zabb-e-lee cooking class

It was a strange feeling — heading to Thailand and knowing that I didn’t come here to saunter at the beach, nor to hit the flea market. Instead, I was making a beeline for something far away from the waves and the skyline — onto the mountainous state of Chiang Mai.

If Bangkok is the kingdom’s Fashionista, and Phuket, its Party Animal, the Chiang Mai would be the Flower Child. With a laid-back cool, it bids you to take things slow. Ever so gently, you find that you’ve turned from the bucket-bearing all-night-reveler, to that morning person who gets up to bike along the rice fields.

At other cities, you may tense up whenever you see a tout or a tuktuk driver approaching, promising yourself you’re not going to be swindled this time. In Chiang Mai, I summoned my haggling face, only to find out that the drivers here charge honestly, and they’re happy to let you be if you refuse. If you let them, though, they can show you the myriad of waterfalls tucked away in the countryside, as well as let you bask in the grand views at some of Thailand’s highest peaks.

Happiest cow-pig I've ever seen
Happiest cow-pig I’ve ever seen

Another striking thing about Chiang Mai is the number of groups advocating wildlife conservation, in a region often attacked for mistreating animals in the name of tourism. There are a lot of things to be said for keeping animals in cages. I think, however, a group that is putting effort into rehabilitating animals who were saved from a desolate situation, may deserve to be heard. In Chiang Mai, you have the chance to interact with fauna in a whole new way, perhaps as a elephant mahout or as a panda baby-sitter. Guests get to learn firsthand what it takes to be a caretaker, instead of simply choosing to gawk at these beautiful creatures from across zoo bars.

Now, with all that was mentioned, I had mixed feelings about going to the Tiger Kingdom sanctuary. I was pretty much sure the tigers must have been sedated; how else would it be safe for tourists to go into the cages? I scoured online for reviews and more information; the park swears by a no-drugs-involved policy for the tigers in the interaction pens. Well, anyone could say that. The only glimmer of hope that did it for me were reviews of visitors strongly vouching for the sanctuary’s claim. Okay, perhaps I did have to see it for myself.

Playful tigers at the Tiger Kingdom
Playful tigers at the Tiger Kingdom

From the park’s reception area, you can already take a peek at the interaction pens. They were wide, offering quite ample space for the tigers to pace and play around. Which they did — a lot. The first thought that struck me were how lively the tigers were, like little brothers scuffing each other’s heads on a mini-brawl — no, they definitely do not look dazed. The park-keepers seemed to be a lively bunch too; they seemed to genuinely love their jobs, which to me was a good sign. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought, ‘Yey! They’re not drugging the tigers!’. On the flip-side, when I realized that I was voluntarily walking into cages wherein the tigers were fully awake and alert, my heartbeat went from fluttering to racing.

How often do you see tiger cubs roaming around your feet?
How often do you see tiger cubs roaming around your feet?

I started easy — I went into the babies’ pen first. The extra-cuddly (and uber-hyper!) tiger cubs were too adorable to resist. At first, I was hesitant to go near, lest I startle a still amply-clawed cub. Pretty soon, I was laying down the floor next to them, laughing with the caretakers as the cubs let us play with their tails (as long as we lovingly stroke their backs, of course).

Aww, I think he likes me.
Aww, I think he likes me.

Big tiger at the Tiger Kingdom

The big cats, however, were a whole different story. I almost chickened out from entering the pen; I only got in, gripping on to someone as if he was a human shield. Up close, the grown-up tigers seem to be 200 tons of pure cunning. As I stroked their backs, it felt like one solid slab of muscle under that fur. Yup, you know it’s all power right there. Although I was holding my breath the whole time, I had no regrets.

A warning by the bird pens at the tiger sanctuary. Oh, the irony.
A warning by the bird pens at the tiger sanctuary. Oh, the irony.

Sunday’s adventures were a bit easier; we signed up for a Thai cooking class, where we meet the sassy and energetic Ann — the young teacher-owner of the Zabb-E-Lee Thai Cooking School. With a big, bright smile, she picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the local market, where we were schooled in the nuances of Thai herbs, noodles and vegetables. Along with our basket-full of goodies, Ann whisked us away to her garden, where the cooking stage was set up. Each of us had our own wok and station; the intimate group size ensured as well that each one was getting the maximum exposure to the sorcery that is called the Thai culinary arts.

At the start, Ann let us choose a personal 4-course menu of 5 dishes to learn. During the first half of the class, I took on the challenge of making pad thai and tom yum soup. At the later half, it was all about the green curry and the spring rolls.
At the start, Ann let us choose a personal 4-course menu of 5 dishes to learn. During the first half of the class, I took on the challenge of making pad thai and tom yum soup. Ann gave all of us a well-deserved break, where we got to taste and share the fruits of our labor. At the second half, I was dead set to master green curry and the spring rolls.

Time whizzed by as we were learning our chosen dishes. While making us laugh the whole time with her quips, Ann also kept us on our toes the whole time, enough to know when to dice and when to shred, and how to make sure the chili is on a manageable level.

Mortar-and-pestle-ing with a vengeance.
Mortar-and-pestle-ing the curry with a vengeance.

It was extremely rewarding to gorge on one of my favorite cuisines, with dishes I whipped up with my own hands. We couldn’t have done it without Ann’s great vibe. I walked away not only with a happy tummy, but with a new skill to hone, and funny anecdotes to boot. Now, if I can only figure out where to get lemon basil in Singapore, then we’ll be all set.

Graduation!
Proud graduates of the Zabb-E-Lee school


The Ka-ching Rundown

  • Return trip from Chiang Mai’s old town to the Tiger Kingdom – 250 baht (~USD 8)
  • Interaction with the tigers at Tiger Kingdom – 620 baht (~USD 20) for the tiger cubs, 420 baht (~USD 15) for the big tigers
  • Cooking class at Zabb-E-Lee Cooking School – 800 baht (~USD 25)

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