Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Lot of Thai food, taking a cookery class in Chiang Mai

We really enjoyed doing a Street Food tour in Vietnam, so when we found out how many cookery schools there are in Chiang Mai it seemed natural to take a class to find out how to make some authentic Thai food. After a bit of research we picked the ‘A Lot of Thai’ cookery school and booked in for their Friday course.

‘A Lot of Thai’ is run by husband and wife team Yui and Kwan. Yui doesn’t have formal culinary training but she is passionate about Thai food (actually I suspect she’s pretty enthusiastic about all kinds of food!) and has been teaching people to cook for over ten years. There are photos of her more famous students around the classroom, including Gordon Ramsey. Her husband Kwan is a graphic designer and also handles the bookings and transport. The classroom is at the side of their house under a lean-to roof.

20140125-092253.jpgClassroom before we started cooking. We were collected and brought to the class in their classic VW camper van.

Stir-fried rice with Thai herbs

We made six dishes during the day, first up was what Yui considers to be her signature dish, fried rice with Thai herbs. Each lesson worked in a similar way, Yui would explain to the ten students a little about the dish and show us how to prepare the ingredients, we would return to our stations to do our preparation and then she would demonstrate the cooking before we went off to finish the dish. At the end we all sat together to eat our creation.

20140129-080302.jpgFried rice preparation: our ingredients plate as we received it, chopped garlic and oil in the wok, finely slicing lemongrass, ingredients plate ready for cooking

20140129-080310.jpgJulie stir-frying

20140129-080319.jpgAndrew carefully aligns his basil leaf garnish, the finished product – yum!

Papaya salad

Papaya salad is unlike anything I’ve come across in other cuisines. It’s fresh and crisp but with a fiery hot, salty and sour dressing. Traditionally made with unripe papaya, there’s also a version made with green mango, and Yui gave us substitutions that we could find at home – either green pears or Granny Smith apples!

20140129-080337.jpgYui showed us the traditional way of shredding the papaya which involved a lot of fast work with the cleaver. We prepared it the modern way with a kind of wavy vegetable peeler, I don’t suppose people going home with missing fingers would be very good for the school’s Tripadvisor ratings…

20140129-080353.jpgThe method is incredibly simple, the ingredients are pounded together in about three stages in a big pestle and mortar before being served

20140129-080401.jpgDelicious but I might have to reduce the amount of chilli I use next time (or work on upping my tolerance!)

Panaeng Curry

Thai curries are famous all over the world. I was a little disappointed that we weren’t taught how to make the curry paste although there are recipes for the various kinds in our souvenir cookbook.

20140129-080412.jpgPanaeng curry: prepared ingredients, reducing the coconut cream in the wok, stir-frying the chicken, finished curry

20140129-080424.jpgAndrew ready to tuck into his curry and rice

Visit to the market

By this stage we were getting quite full and were relieved to hear Yui announce that we were taking a break to visit the local market, Nong Hoy. We always love looking around local markets wherever we’re staying and to do so with a local guide is even better.

20140129-080435.jpgNong Hoy market, Chiang Mai

20140129-080444.jpgProduce in the market (clockwise from top left): fresh vegetables, marigold garlands, an unusual looking Thai herb, bottles of sauces

20140129-080452.jpgYui explaining the many different varieties of aubergine used in Thai cooking

Stir-fried vegetables with glass noodles

20140129-080500.jpgWe were encouraged to try Yui’s method of breaking an egg with one hand, we both managed it but I think it’ll take a bit more practice to feel natural!

20140129-080506.jpgYui demonstrating the stir-frying

20140129-080516.jpgFor each dish the sauce ingredients were set out with little labels for us to mix our own

20140129-080523.jpgAdding the egg to the wok


Stuffed cucumber soup

We were intrigued when we saw this on the menu and not quite sure what to expect. It turns out that cooked cucumber is actually pretty good! Everyone prepared and stuffed their own cucumbers, but as they were all cooked together we had to carve a distinguishing mark into the side of each piece.

20140129-080641.jpgJulie’s hollowed out cucumbers marked with a ‘J’, stuffing them with the seasoned pork mince, Andrew got a bit patriotic when marking his cucumbers, cooking the soup

20140129-080650.jpgAnyone who’s eaten in a Thai restaurant will know that dishes are often garnished with carved vegetables. We got to try our hand at making very simple carrot flowers to be cooked in the soup along with the stuffed cucumbers

Fried bananas

Naturally the final lesson of the day was dessert!

20140129-080659.jpgFried bananas (clockwise from top left): batter ingredients, Yui deep frying them, sadly this wasn’t an individual portion…

We were taken back to our apartment full, happy and keen to try out some of the recipes at home.

Black, White and Gold in Chiang Rai, Thailand

White Temple

From afar Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple as it is commonly known in English, looked to us like a Christmas cake covered in snowy white icing, but as we moved closer we could see that the effect is created by whitewashed concrete studded with glittering mirrors.


The temple complex is the vision of artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, a devout Buddhist wishing to give something back to the world. Construction began in 1997 but is not expected to be completed until 2070! Eventually there will be nine buildings in the complex, and we saw several of these in various stages of construction from concrete and steel poles, to structurally finished but undecorated. The temple’s mix of modern sculpture and ornate decoration blended into a religious building reminded us of the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, also still under construction.

20140122-115130.jpgLooking along the entrance bridge towards the main prayer hall

20140122-115141.jpgStatues decorating the grounds look like mythical creatures

The main prayer hall is approached via a bridge across the reflecting pool. The entrance to the bridge is surrounded by the disturbing sight of hands reaching up in seeming desperation and despair. The artist designed this to remind people that “To reach heaven, you need to pass suffering”. Unfortunately it’s not possible to take photos inside the main prayer hall but we had fun trying to pick up all the references in the completed painting on the back wall – everything from planes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York, to Michael Jackson, Superman, Freddie Kruger, Hello Kitty, Predator and Neo from The Matrix films!

20140122-115152.jpgDecorative features (clockwise from top left): Figure at the end of the bridge, ‘No smoking!, hands reaching up in distress, movie buffs might recognise some of these heads

20140122-115201.jpgRooftop decoration, in the lower left corner you can see where the back wall of the building has been marked out for more decorative work to be carried out

Black House

On the opposite side of Chiang Rai is Baan Dam, the Black House, the creation of another local artist, Thawan Duchanee. It’s quite a contrast and just as fascinating. Although many of the buildings here are in the northern Thai Lanna style and look similar to temple halls, it is not a religious site. It’s not an easy place to describe, it seemed to be part art installation, part guest quarters, and part creepy collector’s exhibit. Or maybe the sets from some kind of fantasy film with knights and dragons.

20140122-135230.jpgThe vast main hall is an impressive sight to be greeted by

It’s not just a museum though, this is actually Duchanee’s estate, his home in Chiang Rai, and consists of dozens of buildings spread over a pretty large area.

20140122-135240.jpgThere are a wide range of building styles in the grounds

Not all of the buildings are open for visitors to go inside but for most of them it’s possible to peer through the window and marvel at them. Some seemed purely to be exhibition spaces, but many were set up like dining rooms, bedrooms or even, in one case, a kitchen complete with stainless steel sink and bright red fridge! We also stumbled upon a couple of bizarrely decorated toilets which seemed to be for visitors’ use. Without exception the furniture and decoration was linked to the natural world and largely the animal kingdom with dozens of different kinds of furs, skins, skulls, skeletons, horns and antlers together with heavy wooden table tops and carvings. Some of the sculptures and carvings looked to have Buddhist influences but others seemed more tribal.

20140122-135308.jpgInside one of the domed buildings we found what looked like a sacrificial altar centred around a crocodile hide

20140122-135252.jpgA range of exhibits (clockwise from top left): inside the main hall, some of the wood carving has a clear Buddhist influence, boat outside an open-sided building, toilet decorated with mobiles of birds!

20140122-135318.jpgBaskets galore crowd this hall

20140122-135332.jpgMany of the exhibits feature dead animals (clockwise from top left): chair back decorated with antlers and skulls, elephant skeleton, wolfskin table runner anyone?, goat skulls mark the edge of a building

20140122-135342.jpgNot sure if we were supposed to sit on the exhibits but no-one caught us…

While wandering around the grounds we’d seen a mesh enclosure which on closer inspection we found to contain two huge snakes. Pretty cool, but probably best seen from behind bars… So imagine our surprise when passing in that direction again we saw one of the snakes on the ground outside the cage! Don’t worry, it hadn’t escaped, there was a man watching over it and stopping it from slithering off. After we’d watched for a while and seen a couple of other people touch it, first Andrew, then I, plucked up the courage to touch it too. It felt very cold and dry.

20140122-130132.jpgMeeting a snake, after a bit of a google search I think it is an Indian or Burmese python

Golden Triangle

Our guesthouse owner had suggested that after the Black House we should go to the Golden Triangle 60km away. Well we had a full tank of petrol to use up in our rented motorbike so off we sped. The Golden Triangle is the area around the confluence of Nam Ruak with the Mekong River and is where Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos meet. Historically this was an important trading area particularly for opium. Nowadays it’s just a (nice) view of the river, a large seated golden Buddha and a collection of stalls selling the ubiquitous elephant print trousers amongst assorted other souvenirs.

20140122-130150.jpgMountainous countryside and farmland from highway 1, heading north from Chiang Rai

20140122-130204.jpgMonuments at the Golden Triangle

20140122-130220.jpgLooking out at the point where three countries meet

It would have been good to have had a full day to explore the region, the small town of Chiang Saen where we stopped for lunch had some historic sites to investigate and there is a museum of opium which might have given us a bit more context. As it was it seemed like a long way to go for a view especially as there was a surprisingly cold breeze on the bike.

20140122-130230.jpgEvening light and an empty road ahead for the long ride back

Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park, Chiang Mai

Royal Flora Ratchaphruek, Chiang Mai

Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park, Chiang Mai

Royal Flora Ratchaphruek is a huge outdoor park on the western outskirts of Chiang Mai. Originally built for a flower festival and exposition to celebrate the King’s 60th accession to the throne and 80th birthday back in 2006, it’s open all year round and now hosts an annual flower festival from December until February. We hired a scooter and got there reasonably early, but even with a full day of leisurely walking around (and taking plenty of pictures..) we think we saw about two-thirds of it. Did I mention it was huge?

Map of the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park, Chiang Mai

Map of the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park, Chiang Mai

We started off with the Corporate Gardens, not quite sure what to expect but we were pleasantly surprised by their diversity and the effort that had gone into making them informative and interactive. We especially liked the groundwater department garden..

Julie and I pumping water by hand in the Department of Groundwater Resources garden

Julie and I pumping water by hand in the Department of Groundwater Resources garden

And of the other corporate gardens, we also liked the palm tree loop – as much for the palm trees as the water assault course it turned out to be – the sprinklers were on and we both got a little bit wet!

Palm tree garden collage

The palm tree garden, aka the ‘water park’

The ‘New Theory Agriculture’ area was fun because it had a pig pen, chickens and a wormery, but as all of the information was in Thai we didn’t really understand the ‘New Theory’ part – it just looked like rural Thailand to us: rice fields, animal pens and vegetable gardens!

Pigs at the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park

Pigs at the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park

Next up was the Orchid Park. Wow.

Orchid Park sign, Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park

Welcome to the Orchid Park. You’ll be spending some time here..

There were so many orchids, and they were all so beautiful that we spent a lot of time looking and taking photographs..

Orchids, Orchids, Orchids..

Orchids, Orchids, Orchids..

As well as the outside Orchid Park, there is a building which was housing a special exhibit of tulips grown in Thailand, and included a variety named in honour of the King.

Tulip collage

Tulips, Tulips, Tulips..

There was also another room full of orchids, and an exhibition upstairs on Dr Rapee Sacrick, who is known as the “Founder and Father of orchids” in Thailand. Behind the exhibition halls we found yet another outdoor area of orchids, this time the specimens on display were entrants in an orchid competition.

The contestant plants were lined up by sub-species, and the prize-winning plants had rosettes hanging from them. What struck me most was the sheer variety – style, colour and size – I hadn’t fully appreciated the heterogeneity. We took a lot more photographs..

Prize-winning orchid collage

Prize-winning orchids

Us in the orchid garden

Us in the orchid garden

The park’s central promenade leads to the focal point of the entire park and its main attraction, the Royal Pavillion. Built like a ‘wihan’ (meeting hall) of a Thai Wat, the pavilion is exquisitely decorated. Inside are murals of King Bhumibol travelling through northern Thailand, typically pointing at a map with a camera around his neck!

Us in front of the Royal Pavilion, Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park

Us with the Royal Pavilion in the background

Collage of the Royal Pavilion, Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Park, Chiang Mai

The beautiful Royal Pavilion

After a little more wandering, we found the Shaded Paradise – a covered tropical garden with an elevated walkway that puts you up in the tree tops. I really like tropical gardens because the humidity carries the smell of earth and breathing that air feels clean to me, it feels purifying. Tropical gardens also tend to contain carnivorous plants such as Tropical Pitchers or Venus Flytraps, and I love that plants eat animals..

Collage of plants in the Shaded Paradise

Tree-top walkway; Carnivorous Tropical Pitchers and dark red leaves

Julie with a fellow photographer and Andrew ordering a beer stein

Julie with a fellow photographer and Andrew ordering a beer stein. There were lots of these painted statues outside the Shaded Paradise garden, each one different

As we worked our way back towards the exit, we found a series of country-sponsored gardens – The Netherlands, Canada, India, and Singapore to name a few. Sadly, we didn’t see one for the UK..

Japanese garden, Royal Flora Ratchaphruek park

The peaceful Japanese garden

We really enjoyed our day at the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek park, and for all we took our time, we still think there’s easily a days worth of things to see and do.

Julie and I on the seesaw, Royal Flora Ratchaphruek park

Julie and I on the seesaw, Royal Flora Ratchaphruek park

Fabric Softener and Monk Baskets

We’ve settled in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, for a couple of months over Christmas and New Year (that’ll be 2556 to 2557..) and as we can cook for ourselves on a more regular basis, we needed to go shopping.

We try to get as much as we can from local markets and the rest from the supermarket, and there’s a familiar name to us Brits here in Thailand – Tesco Lotus.

As we were working down our short shopping list, walking up and down the wide, air-conditioned aisles, it was very easy to forget we were in another country – we could be in a Tesco anywhere in the U.K. – until we looked a little more closely at the items on the shelves..

Oh yeah, we're not in Gateshead anymore!

Oh yeah, we’re not in Gateshead anymore!

.. then we saw the sign for aisle 13: “Fabric Softener, Monk Baskets”

Isle 13: Fabric Softener and Monk Baskets

Aisle 13: Fabric Softener and Monk Baskets

After a double-take, we furled our brows and with our best quizzical faces on, we turned to each other and said in complete unison: “What the hell is a Monk Basket?!” This had to be investigated.

Monk Baskets in Tesco Lotus, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Monk Baskets in Tesco Lotus


If you are out and about shopping in Thailand you may notice some shops selling orange baskets or buckets which contain a number of everyday items like soap, detergent and toothpaste. These buckets are bought by lay-people who then donate them to monks or to the temple. By doing this, the person making the donation makes merit (‘tham boon’). The buckets are normally orange or saffron coloured and are often wrapped in cellophane.

The monk baskets are another example of how Thailand has combined ancient ritual with modern practicality. You will still see Thai people donating food and money to monks as the monks make their morning alms round, but the orange baskets may be donated for special occasions. For example, if somebody buys a new car or a new house in Thailand, it’s common practice for monks to be invited to perform a blessing ceremony. At the end of the ceremony a donation is made to the monks. This may be money which is placed on a pedestal tray or it may be the practical offering of the orange bucket which contains useful everyday items. The buckets or baskets vary in size and price and can be found at stores near temples or even in supermarkets like Tesco Lotus and Big C.

Given that the Monk Baskets are opaque so we couldn’t see what they contained (and the contents list is in Thai), and that they’re cheaper than the empty, boring grey buckets, and we needed a bucket, we bought one and rushed home like two excited little children on Christmas morning clutching Santa’s stockings – eager to find out the treasures within..

Andrew unpacking our Monk Basket. We took it in turns to take an item out

Andrew unpacking our Monk Basket. We took it in turns to take an item out

We can happily report that the entertainment value of Monk Baskets is equalled by the utility and sensible-ness of their contents. Here’s what we got in ours for the equivalent of £5.50..

The contents of our Monk Basket

The contents of our Monk Basket

  • A sachet of instant ginger drink
  • 2 sachets of instant green tea
  • A packet of instant noodles – ‘oriental’ flavour
  • A small plastic bowl
  • One bottle of water
  • A bottle of washing up liquid
  • A dishwashing sponge
  • 5 sticks of incense
  • 2 small candles
  • A large box of matches
  • A sachet of electrolyte beverage
  • 10 Paracetamol 500mg tablets
  • A toothbrush
  • A very small tube of toothpaste
  • A single, individually wrapped toilet roll
  • What we think might be an orange apron for dressing a Buddha statue
  • And a bright orange bucket

We’ve used, or can make use of everything except the Buddha Apron. We’re using the Monk Basket itself as a makeshift kitchen bin, although I think that might put us in negative ‘tham boon’.

Illusion Art in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Art in Paradise introduces itself like this:

An illusion is a sensory perception that causes a distorted or altered impression. Since illusion is not the opposite of reality, the effect of illusion one experiences is neither true nor false.

The illusion of depth in paintings and installation art are presented on two dimensional surfaces by combining a variety of art elements, special techniques and professional skills. This transforms ordinary artworks into extraordinary three-dimensional interactive environments.

Art in Paradise Chiangmai welcomes you into the world of fantastic illusion art, where you can create your own activities and be fully immersed in the interactive 3D artworks.

That makes it sound quite serious but this is not so much a museum as a playground. We had a great time playing around with the various pictures and setups. For some it was obvious how to put ourselves into the picture, but for others we had to be a bit more creative. The museum was really quiet when we visited (apart from a group of schoolkids at the beginning but they soon overtook us) so we had loads of time to take photos and act silly without a queue of people waiting. On the down side it meant that there wasn’t usually anyone around to take a picture with both of us in.

Remember that everything here is flat – including the ‘picture frames’.

20140105-220652.jpgAndrew fending off Jaws

20140105-220658.jpgSharing a coke with a polar bear

20140105-220709.jpgGiraffe escaping from her frame

20140105-220718.jpgJulie making friends with a panda

20140105-220725.jpgWiping a window…

20140105-220731.jpgVan Gogh’s sunflowers

20140105-220738.jpgUs with a very up-to-date shepherdess

20140105-220745.jpgAndrew meditating in a lotus pond

20140105-220752.jpgJulie on a rope bridge

20140105-220758.jpgLooking at the rope bridge from the ‘wrong’ angle gives an idea of how these are set up

20140105-220806.jpgAndrew and a giant toilet roll

20140105-220813.jpgIn the 3D room

20140105-220818.jpgMagic carpet

20140105-220823.jpgPuppet Andrew

20140105-220831.jpgAngel Julie

20140105-220838.jpgTarget practice!


20140105-220851.jpgAndrew on the cover of Time magazine

20140105-220859.jpgGiant Andrew and tiny Julie in the final exhibit

Top tips for getting the most out of a visit… Be willing to be silly, take a full size tripod if you have one (my mini gorillapod didn’t work for most of the scenes as the perspective only works when looked at from eye level) or a big group of friends.