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Trip Report Cooking in Chiang Mai & Driving Around Northern Thailand

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Keen to escape at least some of the English winter, we happened across some cheap flights on Thai from LHR to BKK. Of course, virtually immediately after we booked, the hot topic in the news the devastating flooding in Thailand but as or intention as to focus upon the north of the country we just crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. As it happened, when we left on 6th December, the worst of the flooding appeared to be over, however when checking in online for our flight I noticed that more than half of the previous weeks flights had been cancelled! When we boarded the plane we were astounded at the lack of passengers – a whole 747 for probably less than 100 people. Virtually everyone had a row to themselves! Business and First Class accepted, this was one of the most comfortable flights we have ever taken, an old plane with no seat back entertainment but the extraordinary amount of space more than compensated. The sad fact of this is of course that the lack of traffic from Europe in this, the peak season, must be devastating for the Thai tourism industry.


Arriving in Suvarnabumi in the afternoon we connected with our Air Asia flight to Chiang Mai with plenty of time to spare and arrived at our B&B, The 3 Sis later that the evening. is a pleasant, mid-market place in nice quiet location just 10 min walk to the Tha Pae gate and directly overlooking Wat Chedi Luang and a. Spacious rooms, decent bathrooms and pretty good breakfasts we were only staying for a couple of nights before heading off for our cooking course.
By the time we arrived, it was around 8.00pm so after a quick shower we had a worded with the 3 Sis manager for restaurant recommendation and he sent us off to Huen Phen which was a 5 min walk around the corner. It was a very atmospheric place, although that night it was pretty empty. We opted for the “Khantoke” set dinner, a sort of tapas presentation of 5-6 different curries and dips served with sticky rice (white and purple) and a side order of Som Tum. We made sure to ask for both to be spicy and they certainly obliged. A few Beer Leos and back to the 3 Sis to get over the jet lag – chili and alcohol always seems to work for me!

The next day we set off exploring the old city and to source a SIM card for the BlackBerry. We found the main AIS office and it was a relatively quick and painless process to get up and running for both data and phone. I had opted for AIS upon the recommendation of Hanuman and it proved to be an excellent recommendation – great coverage and reception just about everywhere we went and the speed of browsing seemed to be equivalent to that at home (many thanks H!).

A little later we found the office of Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School - and arranged for them to collect us the next day to commence our course. We had approached this and a number of other schools but this one stood out head and shoulders above the rest in terms of helpfulness and response time via email. The really seemed to go out of their way to answer the many questions I had.

The school offers a range of 5 beginners and master classes all with different menus and activities on each day. After some pre-departure discussion with the school, we decided upon 3 beginner’s classes and 1 master class.

The beginner’s courses started at 10.00 and finished at 16.00 with a number of breaks throughout the day to consume the results of our labours! The day would commence with an “activity” which, in our case was a visit to the local market, a lecture on ingredients, their uses, preparation and alternatives if we can’t get them back home (very useful). The final activity was vegetable carving at which Carolyn was adept but for which I clearly lacked the necessary skills/aptitude. The format of each day was broadly similar. First, a demonstration of each of the courses was provided in the air conditioned demo kitchen with theatre style seating and an angled mirror on the ceiling so everyone gets a fantastic view of the demo. Once the demonstration is over we go outside to our own work stations to create the dishes ourselves. There are plenty of instructors and assistants around to provide additional help and guidance when needed. The instructors are really great – entertaining as well as good teachers. Pon particularly, who looked after us throughout our stay and “Big Momma” ( a bit like the Singapore TV chef Nancy Lam on speed). A number of the sessions each day were taken by the master chef himself Sombon Nabnian – a great character with a fantastic, laid-back sense of humour. Each day we cooked 6 dishes to make up a complete meal. With so much food throughout the day, we certainly didn’t feel like eating in the evenings.

Each day there were around 12 – 15 people on the course, many there for just a day others returned for several days and some, like us were staying in Sombon’s home, but there was plenty of space for more students so it never felt crowded in the slightest. The course are held at the specially designed and built open air school adjoining Sombon’s lovely home out at Doi Saket , about 15 mins from the centre of town. Most people either came for one day only or for a few days but stayed in the city. We had chosen to stay at the home stay in Sombon’s home and were really glad we did. The bedrooms are all very large and well furnished and you effectively get the run of the house and beautiful gardens – the breakfasts, as you would expect, are amazing and vary from day to day. Pon is a sort of Mr Fixit and offers to run us anywhere we want to go in our spare time. Nothing is too much trouble for him. On our first night we had our gourmet dinner party accompanied by a Japanese lady who was staying for the same 4 days as us and an Australian couple who were leaving the next day. The food was fantastic and each dish was accompanied by an explanation by Sombon which, all in all made for a great evening.

One evening Pon runs us into town for our complimentary massage and to visit the “Saturday Walking Street” (transport was provided to take us anywhere we wanted to go) The walking street is alternative to the now huge night-market area which now appears to be selling only tacky souvenirs and tee shirts. The walking street (there is another bigger one on Sunday held in different streets). At 7,00pm when we visited it was very, very busy but the quality of merchandise was much more interesting, varied and better quality than the night market. We spent a couple of hours there before dinner at Aroon Rai a very old established, family run close to Tha Pae Gate. The food was really excellent, especially the Khao Soi (a Northern Tha Coconut curry soup with noodles and chicken) and Gai Phet Krabpao (chicken with chili, garlic and holy basil. We end the evening with a few beers at Pinte Blues Bar on Thanon Moonmuang. I have wanted to visit this place for years. It is very small and simple but places amazing music all night long with occasional live performances (sadly not when we were there). Simple food, cold beer all surrounded by black and white photos of all the blues greats from Robert Johnson & T Bone Walker to Jefferson to Eric Clapton and John Mayall – my idea of musical heaven!

On our final day the school driver took us back to the airport to collect our rental car for the next stage of our trip and we drove back to Doi Saket in plenty of time for our Master Class with Chef Sombon himself at 4.00pm. This class took a different format it was very fast paced and geared towards cooking for a dinner party (and indeed, by the time we had finished there was probably enough food for 12!). We had chosen a menu no. 4:

Mixed vegetable soup with prawns.

Jungle curry pork (curry without coconut milk).
Steamed snake head fish with a chili and lime sauce.

Stir-fried prawns with asparagus.

Spicy beef salad Thai Style.

This time, rather than “demonstrate and then do” Sombon took us through each dish, step by step creating each dish from the basic ingredients (including pounding away in a mortar and pestle for ages until the curry pastes had achieved a smoothness acceptable to Chef!). With Sombon’s guidance we managed to complete all the dishes to arrive on time and then sat down to eat them. If I do say so myself, this was one of the best Thai meals I have eaten in a long time and a vast improvement on anything we had cooked before back home. The only problem was the vast amount of food we had produced! Totally impossible to eat all of it !

This has been a fantastic experience and we really have learnt a tremendous amount, not only about cooking Thai food but also about Thai cuisine in general. We will be sad to leave tomorrow.

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