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Cooking Thai in Chiang Mai

Cooking School in Chiang Mai
Gahn, a Chiang Mai Thai cookery school instructor, reminds her class to "never, never touch your eyes (or use the restroom) after you cut chili peppers."

For decades Chiang Mai was the quiet “backdoor” gateway to Thailand. Backpackers settled in to restock, revamp, and relax in one of the tiny guesthouses nestled between the city’s protective walls and moats. Students of Buddhism came to meditate in one of the 300 temples.

The northern capital still retains its tradition and culture, but Chiang Mai has evolved into a cosmopolitan city, complete with hoards of tourists—many of whom are needed now more than ever to help Thailand rebuild its economy following the tsunami disaster.

The walls of nearly every building advertise trekking excursions, cooking classes, yoga and meditation seminars, Muy Thai boxing matches, and elephant rides. However, Chiang Mai still possesses a charm that Bangkok lacks. Size is one factor. You can walk the city’s walls in an hour, making it easier to explore without getting overwhelmed. The view is another. Beyond the city gates lie a border of green-carpeted mountains capped by sky that is by turns sizzling blue in the tropical sunshine or thick with charcoal rain clouds. And hidden among the tourist traps are gems that afford travelers the chance to learn, interact, and have fun.

On a second visit to Chiang Mai I swallowed my reluctance to do the “tourist thing” and signed up for a 5-day class at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School.

Reportedly the first of its kind, the school has been in business 11 years and offers classes at two facilities: The Wok restaurant, in the heart of the city, or the home of Elizabeth and Sompon, the school’s owners and founders. Students who choose the home facility are picked up at The Wok in a private van.

Knowing that we would be in Chiang Mai more than five days, I negotiated a 10 percent discount with the White House guesthouse proprietor and paid cash up front. Our total for six nights with hot water and a private bathroom was 1620 baht (about $40).

I also paid up front for all five cooking classes, a total of 4200 baht (about $105). The price included a full-color cookbook, a guided market tour, and all the food I could cook and eat each day. Individual classes are 900 baht ($22.50).

Our Thai instructors, Gahn and Roong, were so skilled that throughout the demonstrations they kept up a running commentary peppered by jokes and suggestions for substituting ingredients and avoiding mistakes in cooking and love.

Some of their suggestions:

  • Only stir in one direction, or the soup will get confused and not taste good.
  • Always smile when you cook, but never sing or you will end up with an old spouse.
  • The best thing about garlic is smashing: you can imagine that it is the face of someone you hate.
  • Wash your hands directly after chopping chili peppers and before you go to the bathroom; if you get chili juice on your special places, no one can help you.
Sweet and Sour Chicken, Thai style
The author displays her first attempt at sweet and sour chicken and spicy yellow curry.

For More Information

Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, 47/2 Moon Muang Rd. (opposite Tha Phae Gate); Chiang Mai; Thailand; 011-66-53-206388, 206315; fax 206387;;

The Wok Restaurant is located at 44 Ratmankha Rd.; 011-66-53-208287.

Lonely Planet Thailand has tons of recommendations for guesthouses in Chiang Mai. If one is full, walk down the street until you find another you like.

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