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Thailand's Best Buy

At $20 a day, a course at the splendid Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School is a bargain. And it's not the only reason to come to this beautiful city.

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I started traveling alone through Europe when I was 15, in Africa when I was 18 and in Southeast Asia when I was 20. I'd book a flight as soon as I could afford one, then scramble to save traveling money. "Sleep cheap, eat well" was my motto, and few people, I assure you, have slept cheaper. I've shared a giant circus tent with 500 hippies in Munich, lived among the demimondaines of an old Chinese brothel in Penang and, in the Sahara south of Ourzazate, slept on a sheet of plastic, the edges pegged up into a lip to fend off stampeding desert mice.

Everything changed, as is often the case, when I met a girl. Three weeks before I was due to go to Thailand, I met Cricket, now my fiancée; we agreed she'd follow me out. Now, Cricket had been raised in good hotels--her father had owned Ritz-Carltons in New York and Washington, D.C. When she caught up with me in Bangkok, I was staying at my favorite establishment, a concrete relic from the '70s where transvestite hookers swarmed the lobby every night. Cricket was intrigued, but I decided it wasn't good enough for her, and we moved to the sprawling Marriott resort, a complex of pretty lawns and pools with swim-up bars on the Chao Phraya river. That night, looking down at her as she slept blissfully, her head surrounded by a halo of minibar Snickers wrappers, I realized that I was finally ready to upgrade.

That was five years ago. Today, although I can still sleep in a yurt, I'm happiest with Frette linens and marble soaking tubs. When I was planning a return to Thailand, my buddy Bill Yosses, a New York City pastry chef, steered me toward the Regent Chiang Mai Resort and Spa, managed by the Four Seasons.

I've loved Chiang Mai since my first arrival 20 years ago, when I delighted the crowds at the Night Bazaar with my clowning, tapping myself zanily on the head with a small carved hammer. (My "hammer," the stall keeper explained as he gently took it away from me, was a traditional phallic symbol.) The historic capital of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai encompasses an old walled city, complete with moat, and is surrounded by teak forests and smoke blue mountains. There's a bit more bustle these days, but Chiang Mai remains a respite from Bangkok's heat and hassle.

One key attraction is the dining. Chiang Mai's cuisine owes a clear debt to the foods of Burma and Laos, with Burmese-style curries (like gaeng hahng ley, a gingery pork dish, and kao soi, curried noodles in coconut broth) and Lao-style sticky-rice dishes as staples. People come to Chiang Mai to eat, and, increasingly, to learn how to cook. Indeed, the city has become something of a self-improvement center, and everywhere you'll see flyers and posters advertising courses in Thai cooking, yoga and kickboxing.

The Regent, a tranquil 10 miles from the city center, makes the perfect resting place. The accommodations--smart little chalet-style houses with coolly modern interiors, each with a sala (veranda)--are draped in a crescent over 20 acres of impeccably kept grounds. There's a handsome restaurant just off the lobby, and a second bar and restaurant by the infinite-horizon pool. While I was overcoming my jet lag, I'd get up at 4 a.m. and float dreamily in the inky water, a thousand stars in the sky above me, the hills' purple shadows all around.

The hotel is unique in its respect for local tradition: The teak guest houses are inspired by Chiang Mai's historic architecture, and much of the grounds have been given over to terraced rice paddies. The hotel even keeps its own team of water buffalo. Small streams cross the property, and there are naturalistic ponds and gobbets of jungle. There are also tennis courts, an exquisite spa, and elephant-watching and river-rafting excursions, but I find that time is best spent just lounging, reclining regally on the sala with a book and silk pillows, bamboo blinds demurely drawn.

During my last visit--for I am not completely indolent--I enrolled in the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. Founded in 1993, it has become the Chiang Mai cooking school against which all others are judged (and from which many others have apparently stolen their name). The place is run by a young Thai chef, Sompon Nabnian, and his English wife, Elizabeth, and a cadre of almost terrifyingly enthusiastic young teachers.

One classroom is a roofed open space with a battery of burners in the garden beside Sompon's restaurant, The Wok. There's even a fragrant little Thai potager, with lemongrass, holy basil and a kaffir lime tree. Many classes are held at Sompon's house in the suburbs, and there are also market trips, where the mysteries of serpent fish, coconut-milk making and beetle eating are all explored. It's an all-day hands-on course, a happy bounce through the basics of Thai food, from curry-paste making to fruit carving, and is probably the best cooking class I've ever taken. And it costs just a little more than $100 for five days, which covers tuition and ingredients for the six dishes the class cooks daily, as well as a copy of Sompon's cookbook. (A few recipes adapted from it follow.)

My fellow students were mostly travelers living as I had in my penurious youth. Jerry was a Rasta from Brooklyn, Paul a brewery foreman from New Jersey who'd been staying in a Thai kickboxing camp where it sounded like they lived on rats they'd had to hunt for themselves (the class approved--very authentic). As we ate our curries and stir-fries, there was talk about the best routes through Laos, malaria prophylaxis and, as always, the evils of luxury tourism.

Of course I kept tight-lipped about where I was staying--after class I'd sneak off and hide near the corner of the Night Bazaar to wait for the Regent's minibus. I'd feel a slight flush of ignominy, but then, sitting on my sala by candlelight, listening to the frogs in the pond and eating a bowl of kao soi while I watched the mosquito coil burn down, I'd feel pretty darned good.

Jonathan Hayes writes about food, music, travel and design. 

Published May 2002
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