We sit in the stifling heat, beating off the flies and bees. Cicadas and crickets chirp in the hills all around, and a chorus of laughing children drifts up to us from the valley below. Fields of rice and citrus form the vast expanse in front of us, and the occasional Thai farmer in broad straw hat moving about his fields breaks up the monotony.
A giant spider tenderly creeps by behind us, aiming not to be seen. A welcome breeze wisps by, rustling the banana tree leaves to sound like the light patter of rain.
I take a sip from my mango-smoothie-like-no-other.
This is what break-time looks like at our cooking course in paradise.
On Monday afternoon, we are whisked away from Chiang Mai and taken to a small organic farm and permaculture property about 50 kms outside of the city, in the beautiful country side. A quick stop at the market floods all our senses: sounds of shopkeepers calling to one another and chatting with customers, smells of everything from fresh fruit to rotting fish, colourful sights of tray after tray of produce, fingers running over everything from silk to cacti, and the taste of just about anything you dare to try.
Another short ride and the truck pulls off the main road and onto an uneven driveway meant for a four-wheeler. But here, cars, trucks, and (more commonly) motorbikes navigate conditions many drivers back home in Canada might think twice about.
We have just pulled into You Sabai; a little piece of paradise run by Krit and Yao, a beautiful and kind Thai couple.
“Relax, take a walk around the property, have a nap, come by the coffee shop, whatever you like. We’ll have dinner at 7:30,” Yao says, after she shows us to our adobe hut which is to be our little home for the next three nights.
The hut reminds us of the ferro cement yurt we lived in for almost three months in Hawaii. Only it is smaller, the windows are covered with mosquito netting, and the bed is on the floor (a romantic style I absolutely adore and plan to replicate when we set up shop again in Canada). A large white mosquito net hangs above the bed loosely tied up. A peek out the window reveals miles and miles of relatively untouched greenery, gradually climbing up a small mountain in the distance. This is the stuff of dreams; I’m sure if I read romance novels that this place would be front and center in one.
There is no electricity (candles and headlamps illuminate the way at night), and the washroom is another adobe hut just up the path. The shower is as traditional as it gets in this part of the world: a large bucket filled with water (all the water here is from a rain catchement or nearby reservoir), with a smaller scoop or bowl to ladle the water all over yourself. And the water is always colder than you expect it to be.
We haven’t even started cooking yet and my senses are being overloaded!
After a fabulous dinner that gives us a small preview of what we are to expect in the next three days, we retire to our hut for the night.
Ah yes. We remember this from Hawaii: the rounds. We inspect every inch of the bed, the walls, our clothes, and the blankets for critters we would rather not share the night with. Although we are reassured that there’s nothing “very” poisonous here, we are a long way from anywhere we could get first aid, and a long way from anything familiar.
The spiders are easily 5cms wide (and those are the small ones), and we immediately spot two different (and alarmingly large) types of scorpions.
Needless to say, with all our night companions, sleep does not come easily, even with the mosquito net creating a protective bubble around us.
Bright and early the next morning, we gather for Yoga in what has to be the most inspirational setting ever. The sun is rising over the rolling mountain beyond, and we lay our yoga mats out on a small patch of dirt with the valley in front of us. We are a small group that has risen (literally) to the occasion: there are just six of us.
And it just so happens that one of the course attendees just took a yoga-teacher workshop, and she leads us through a one-hour Ashtanga session that loosens us up and stretches us out.
After a quick break and breakfast of fresh fruits, it’s down to business.
As a group (we are seven in total), we must decide on 12 of the 20 delightful vegetarian Thai dishes to prepare. It isn’t too difficult, and it quickly becomes apparent that we as a group will have fun cooking together.
But before we head for the kitchen and headlong into our lunch preparation, we learn how to make tofu…from scratch. Tofu has always been something of a mystery to me, and often not the protein of choice. Although I don’t mind it, I’ve never found an easy way to cook with it without turning it into an unidentifiable mush.
But the tofu we made was firm, delicious, and relatively easy to make! Although we are not devout vegetarians (we prefer to call ourselves “omnivores”), we fully expect to make our own tofu in the not too distant future.
The kitchen is not what we are prepared for; an open-air paradise, overlooking the open valley and distant foothills. There are four wooden stands with propane burners, and a long cement table where we eager students take seats in front of the ingredients we will shortly be preparing. With seven sets of hands to chop, dice, and mince (plus the very capable hands of Krit, our instructor), easy work is made of the initial preparations.
Shortly thereafter, we start cooking; Krit would prepare a dish, we would all taste it (no cooties here – everybody dips their spoon in and shares communally), then in two shifts, would try our own hands at replicating Krit’s masterpieces.
Fresh spring rolls, pad thai, panang curry, sweet and sour pineapple, green curry, sweet mango sticky rice….the list goes on. Everything is made from scratch, and with nothing but organic and fresh ingredients, grown onsite or purchased locally. What a treat!
And so it went, Tuesday and Wednesday – yoga in the morning (until the bees came out at which point I would run away, flailing my arms all along the way), a small breakfast (thankfully), then three dishes for lunch, and three dishes for dinner. Inevitably by the time dinner rolled around, we would insist that we were much too full to keep cooking and eating, but somehow we would manage to keep cooking and eating.
After dinner by headlamp and a sole light bulb in the area, we would chat, play cards, and get to know each other better, all the while batting away a whole new conglomerate of insects that came out at night. Once the insects got to be too much, we would retire one by one, and proceed to inspect our respective huts for unwanted creepy crawlies.
Some of the students were up for the bugs more than others. None of us were all too pleased to be sharing our dwellings with the likes of a scorpion, but some were able to take it in stride a little better. I would like to think that with our Hawaii experiences, we fell into the latter category, but you never know. I think I lost ground every time I ran from a meditative yoga session for all the bees around me.
Thursday morning, we decide to skip yoga, and find ourselves being woken up by the mystical sound of music, drifting up from the valley. A truck with a loudspeaker is driving by the temple way below us, and singing to the hills. The ominous music lingers and creates a slight echo, both throughout the valley and in our own minds. This is one of the best alarm clocks we have ever had, and we try to capture this moment forever as we lay in bed listening to the bells and chimes. What a way to wake up before we head back to Chiang Mai.
We reflect on the three days we spent creating wonderful meals, memories, and friendships. You Sabai continues to be an experience we rave about to anybody who will listen. If we could do it again, we would, bug spray and all.