When we first arrived in Chiang Mai and were headed to the Elephant camp, our driver made a pit stop in the middle of the city to pick up another passenger. She was a young South African woman who left home five years ago and is now teaching English and yoga in Chiang Mai while spending her free time volunteering with the elephants. She was bubbly, interested in our story and since we had an hour to kill in the back of this truck, we began talking. Just ten minutes before, as we pulled away from the airport and being the eager tourists we are (we’ll try to become pros eventually) we began making ourselves at home as we brought out our camera, portable BlueTooth speaker, and phones. So after we picked up this new and unexpected friend, we felt pretty exposed as she began making comments about our belongings. She loved our camera and wanted us to take pictures of her at the camp (this was a creepy request and never happened). She mentioned she loved my dress and accessories as she grabbed my hand to admire a few rings. As these compliments kept pouring out, Shawn and I became more and more quiet. We slowly stopped taking photos and turned off our music. All I could think for the rest of the ride was, “Jordan, you’re an idiot and the worst tourist, this girl is going to take all of your belongings while you’re sleeping”. For all I knew, she had the keys to our room in her back pocket. However, even as creeped out as we were by her and her admiration of our things, I am grateful we crossed paths. She provided us with a slew of restaurant and attraction recommendations back in the city, and if you know Shawn and me, we will travel for food so we were becoming very persuaded into changing our travel plans. Prior to this chat, we had no intentions of staying in the city during this leg of our trip, but we also did not realize the camp was so far into the mountains. So as she began to describe her favorite dishes and our mouths were salivating, I knew we would have to make it back into the city one way or another. I remembered the camp’s cancelation policy was flexible through AirBnB, so on our second evening at the elephant sanctuary and a glass or two of liquid courage later, I asked if it was possible for us to end our stay early and arrange for someone to take us back into town the next morning. To my surprise, all we had to do was a make a call to AirBnB. Within thirty minutes after receiving this good news, we were booked into a new hotel and were ready to experience Chiang Mai.
Once we arrived and checked in, we spent the morning walking to the Old City where the majority of the original walls and moat around the perimeter are still intact. We followed our map to South Africa’s favorite lunch spot where you’re asked to take your shoes off at the door and are served the most amazing green curry fried rice and big noodles. Once we finished fueling up, we wandered through the old city streets as we made our way towards the many gilded Buddhist temples. Most of the streets were narrow alleyways covered with wildflowers and ivy with vibrant unique building fronts for each shop and cafe. The design and decor of the storefronts were fresh and familiar, it almost felt like we were back home. At each temple, we were greeted with a sea of other tourist’s shoes and
I never thought we would have the opportunity to visit Thailand, but when moving to China made it possible, I didn’t expected we would have the opportunity to stay in an elephant sanctuary during our travels. After three flights, an hour ride in the back of a truck and almost 24 hours of travel, we finally made it to Chai Lai Orchid. At the resort we were not only surrounded by elephants and a six day old baby calf, but the camp laid on wonderful grounds right on a river with wooden and bamboo huts, a cafe where all of the guests gathered in the evening and a lovely burmese refugee staff. Chai Lai partnered with DaughtersRising to provide local underprivileged tribal women, who are at risk for trafficking, paid hospitality jobs and housing within the sanctuary. Alexa, an American and the founder of Chai Lai Orchid, started the resort as an opportunity to provide shelter and train young local women. What she began as an exercise for the surrounding Burmese refugees to imagine a better life for them and their families, transformed into an eco-friendly lodging experience that provided reputable job training for these young women.
The morning after we arrived, we started our day at six o’clock with a sunrise bare back trek around the grounds with a mother and grandmother elephant duo. The trainers guided us up to the second story of one of the huts to climb onto our new pals, handed us each a bushel of bananas and we were off! While on our ride through the camp, the trainer would yell กล้วย , which is Thai for banana, and our elephants would reach their trunks behind their heads and wait for their treats, peel and all. But once they knew you had snacks for them, they were not going to stop until they had eaten them all, and even come back to double and triple check to make sure you weren’t stashing any for yourself. At the end of our trek, we were carried into the river and received an ice cold morning bath with our companions.
Once we freshened up and had breakfast, we headed out of the camp for an eight mile hike to explore waterfalls and have lunch with our guide’s family. Our guide Sing grew up in one of the Karen Hill Tribes and learned his english as a young boy through his interactions with travelers on tours through his village. This experience allowed him to become a guide himself and provide for his new family. Throughout our hike, Sing would pull us to the side when he would find leafs that could blow bubbles, unique beetles and spiders and quiz us on farmer’s crops we passed by. We took a dip in the waterfall before making our way to Sing’s home. We were greeted by his
When we set out for a new city we have never explored, the first thing we do is research their top restaurants. Whether it’s for the big as yo’ face cinnamon rolls (San Antonio) or the heavenly sandwiches that were dangled in front of us on Man vs. Food (San Fransisco), we know which restaurants we’re eating at before we pack our bags. This is our favorite part of exploring new parts of the world, so when I stumbled upon Joyce’s Garden at Lama Temple, I blacked out with excitement and began signing us up before I was able to tell Shawn the news. Joyce offers an intimate cooking class where she teaches up to six participants how to make traditional Chinese dumplings and hand pulled noodles from scratch. I want to pause here and tell you that my current food obsession is dumplings. I crave them on a daily basis and have been wanting to learn the process, but have been too nervous to try it on my own. So when I found this opportunity, it felt like the Dumpling Gods were telling me it was meant to be. It almost felt like a secret club we had to be invited to. You have to request to be a part of one of her classes through a form on her website and if you’re lucky, she will have room for you on her tiny roster. I stalked my email for hours waiting for her response, keeping my fingers crossed that we did not cut it too close before the day of the session. Thankfully, she was able to add us in to a Saturday morning class where we would begin preparing our afternoon dumpling feast at 10:30am.
When the morning arrived, we were provided the address to a local coffee shop where we were to meet Joyce and the others partaking in this culinary adventure. Once we were rounded up, we followed her back through winding alleyways, a traditional style of neighborhood in Beijing, Joyce explained, where most of the homes only consisted of one room and kitchen with communal bathrooms. These buildings are inclosed with a courtyard shared with three other homes. This design is meant to maximize sunlight and minimize the contact with the busy city outside. These structures are built to be family oriented and house four generations, one generation for each building within the shared courtyard. Now, these traditions have begun to change and many of the homes have built additional rooms where the customary courtyard would stand. Many of the neighborhoods in the city were built this way before the days of high rises and their growing economy, thus leaving these homes to be flipped into businesses and restaurants. Joyce’s renovated space was so quaint, we felt right at home with her soft music and treats set out on the table waiting for our arrival. Her compact dumpling house was decorated with raw wood furniture, dried flowers and hints and nautical blue and white stripes. Joyce gave us a (very) quick tour of her space, which only required a few steps and us popping our heads around the corner to the kitchen and the extra room that was added on.
Once we settled in, there was no time to waste. Joyce and her assistant began prepping the ingredients to bring out to the table. We started with the dough for the noodles and dumplings, as they need time to rise. Once the dough was complete, Joyce explained each ingredient that was put into the traditional pork and cabbage dumpling (our favorite!) and poured them into a large bowl which we each took turns mixing. By the time we had made the fillings for the the pork/cabbage and the egg/chive/shrimp dumplings (I’m making you hungry, aren’t I?) it was time to cut up the dough and roll it out in to small circles. This part really takes practice. How is it that the experts always make it look so easy? After making our circles, we filled them up with dumpling stuffings – pinch, pinch, pinch of the dough – and sent them off to the kitchen to be boiled or pan fried. Now came Shawn’s favorite part, and he was pretty good at it; the hand pulled noodles! After flattening the dough, you cut off small strips and place one end in each hand and slap the noodle on the cutting board as you between to pull the edges away from each other. Once everyone in the group had a pile of noodles, Joyce dumped them into a boiling pot for them to cook for only a few minutes, before running them through cold water to serve for a summer time appetizer. She laid out different traditional mixings for the noodles and grabbed us all a beer. It was finally time to relax and feast, and feast we did. The dishes we made were out of this world and we had good size food babies by the times we parted ways. If you ever find yourself in Beijing, we hope you make this your first stop – you will not be disappointed.