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Chiang Mai is a cultural and educational centre and many people linger here to learn the Thai language or Thai massage, amongst other things. Jake has a keen interest in food and luckily for me a talent for making it; from baking pecan tarts to cooking beef stroganoff, lasagne and pies. Consequently, he was very excited to take a cooking course whilst in Chiang Mai to learn about Thai food. It might not have been something I would have done if I was travelling alone so I went along to broaden my horizons.

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After being picked up we headed to a food market to meet our cooking guide, who proceeded to show us the different produce commonly found at Thai markets. There were many items we’d never heard of that are staple ingredients of numerous classic dishes. Kefia limes, hot basil (tastes like aniseed), three different kinds of chilli pepper, three kinds of eggplant and so on. Next we headed to the cooking school a little way out of town.

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Set on a large property, the school had room for growing vegetables and keeping animals that were all used as the ingredients for the food we would prepare. We chose what dishes we wanted to make from a small selection (in our class we got to make one of each soup, stir fry and curry) and then set about the preparation. The ingredients were already set out for us, so all we had to do was a bit of chopping and crushing before going over to the pans to cook. We were able to add or remove as much of each ingredient as we wanted, so you could control the spiciness (or sexiness) of your food accordingly. Needless to say I was pretty conservative with the spice, whilst Jake was clearly trying to punish himself with the amount of chilli in his. Consequently I found the dishes he made to be horrible…

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We had an awesome time at the cooking school, learnt a lot about Thai cuisine and had a really fun time with our guide, who made so many inappropriate jokes we didn’t stop laughing. We were absolutely stuffed after, and also got a recipe book to keep so we can dazzle our friends with authentic Thai cuisine back in England. We would definitely recommend!

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The second activity we were super keen to do was some kind of elephant encounter. However the use of asian elephants for tourism in Thailand is quite a controversial issue. It was important to us that we did something ethical that wouldn’t be detrimental to them in any way. Elephants were used in the logging industry in Thailand for a while, inadvertently helping destroy their own habitats. So when the logging industry was halted by the government in the 1970s, it meant there were suddenly a load of elephants that couldn’t work but had no habitat to return to. This coincided with the increase in foreign tourism to the country, so the owners of the elephants (mahouts) decided to use their animals as a source of income by selling rides to tourists.

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However, giving rides to humans is actually very uncomfortable for elephants as their skeletons aren’t built to carry so much weight. The only way you can make an elephant agree to give rides is by “breaking its spirit” when it’s very young; by separating it from its mother and more or less torturing it. This process is referred to as the “blank” and was exposed by a journalist in 19??. Elephants are not domesticated animals and to get them to perform such activities requires a specific kind of persuasion – often in the form of prodding and striking with a bullhook. Plenty of companies offering elephant encounters in Chiang Mai have numerous negative reviews on TripAdvisor saying people witnessed cruelty to the animals, like the use of chains and tiny enclosures. However other people claim it’s a cultural practise that as western tourists we don’t understand (after all, don’t the owners of the elephants know what’s best for them?) and the mahouts are just trying to make a living – at least the elephants are cared for and not being poached. It was very difficult to know what to believe because so many of the sources were unreliable, but we did decide we didn’t want to ride an elephant – just get to meet some.

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Anyway, ethical spiel over, we opted for the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, where you spend a day meeting, feeding, playing with and washing 6 rescued elephants. The animals essentially go about their daily routine and you get to accompany them. I’ve never been so close to such large creatures, and being able to feel their skin and trunks was really amazing. They’re such huge, powerful animals, yet so gentle and intelligent, it truly was phenomenal. We fed them bananas and corn, made them a dessert of banana with water, rice and oats (very messy!), gave them mud baths and washed them off in a waterfall. The elephants seemed super happy; they loved being rubbed with mud and looked ecstatic when they got their baths. We got some awesome pictures and easily had one of the most memorable days of our trip =)

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Altogether we stayed in Chiang Mai for 7 nights but we easily could have stayed longer. The city epitomised what I’ve always thought south east asia to be like, with great food, chill vibes and an awesome atmosphere. We agreed it was one of our favourite destinations on our trip so far, and that one day, we would return.

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