Cooking classes at Zabb E Lee cooking school in Chiang Mai, Thailand 

Ahhhhh Thai food….I mean, that’s why we go to Thailand right? To eat the food?

No? You wanted to do other things too like see Bangkok and play with baby elephants? Ah, I see…well…today we’re talking about cooking!

No one can deny that the food in Thailand is one of the countries biggest “pros”. It is so fresh, colorful and often made by little mom and pop shops vs. large chains like in the states.

Personally, Thai food is one of my favorites. Back home in Chicago, I will eat the shit out of some pad thai! I was very excited to try the real thing here in Thailand!

Even more excited to learn how to make it myself so I can get my fix anytime!

After you arrive in Chiang Mai from the sleeper train, you will be absolutely bombarded with tourist things. ATV rides, zip lining, renting a motorcycle, seeing elephants and last but not least: cooking classes.

Due to the touristic nature of Chiang Mai, there are many companies to choose from! I poured over every last brochure I could get my hands on to make sure that I was spending my silver bullet on the best class.

After doing plenty of research using trip advisor, talking to other expats, and lots of comparison shopping (the best way to get bang for your buck), I decided to attend Zabb E Lee Thai Cooking school.

Why Zabb E Lee?

When researching cooking classes in Chiang Mai, you are typically presented with a menu where you can choose which items off it you would like to make. Popular menu items typically include various curries, noodle dishes, and appetizers.

All cooking companies offer pick-up from your hotel or hostel as long as you are near the city center, and they all include tours of the local market so you can learn about ingredients.

Zabb E Lee (which, in Thai, basically means “f*cking delicious“) immediately had a leg up on my list against other cooking schools in Chiang Mai for three reasons.

  1. It was the only school that offered Pad Thai as a menu option. Yeah yeah maybe Pad Thai is an American-Thai dish but shut up! It’s my favorite all the same and that’s what I wanted to be able to make when I got home. Don’t be hater!
  2. In addition to having Pad Thai on the menu, Zabb E Lee also boasted that all students would be learning to make mango and sticky rice along with their chosen menu items. As we all know, this is like THE dessert to have while in Thailand.
  3. The most affordable. With a half day class rolling in at 900 Baht, this was the cheapest price I saw. Gotta make those dollars work!

I contacted the owner and teacher of the school, Ann, via email and she responded almost immediately that I would be able to attend class that evening.

After being picked up from my hostel, we arrived at Zabb E Lee cooking school. The place was beautifully decorated and set up like a fancy restaurant. My classmates and I sat at the table and enjoyed water and tea before before Ann joined us. The only single person there, I was joined by three couples from Dublin, Toronto, and New York City.

Ann joined us and introduced herself. I could immediately tell that she was genuinely excited we were there. We went over the menu and she took down our ‘orders’ and learned our names. After a few minutes learning about the school and the different menu dishes, we hopped in her songathew and headed to the local market.

The market was a fascinating experience. I’d been to markets before – in Bangkok – but this was wonderful and unique because Ann was an excellent guide. She took us to various stalls and taught us not only about the ingredients we would be using in our class, but educated us with fun facts and history of other ingredients.

I also learned that while Thai food is not only delicious and incredibly fresh, presentation is just as important as taste. Many of the items we looked at revolved around changing the color of the food. Turmeric for example can be used to change the color of tofu, and as an anti-itch agent. Soy sauce can be used to dye noodles different shades of black. Certain flowers and fruits can create shades of pink, purple and orange – amazing!

Fun Fact: When the Thais eat mango it is green. It turns yellow with age on the long journey overseas to the United States. No wonder it’s so much better in Thailand – the mango basically just got picked!

When signing up for a cooking class in Thailand, I worried I might be wasting my money. I knew that I’d be getting delicious food, but there were bound to be ingredients I either couldn’t get back home or they would cost me an arm and a leg.

Ann was wonderful at addressing these concerns without me even asking. I suspect she must have lived in the states at some point because she was able to tell us “they don’t have this in your country, but you can use this instead” for many of the Thailand-specific ingredients.

At the end of the tour, we were given 10 minutes to explore the market. During this time I walked around and took pictures of things I had questions about and returned to Ann to ask her about them. Specifically some super weird appleish looking things and this weird spiky fruit. She kindly and patiently answered all my questions and even taught me how to eat the rambutan (spiky fruit) I had purchased.

After the market tour, we returned to the school and immediately jumped into action. Ann was exceptional at explaining everything to us in an enthusiastic, funny, witty, and well spoken manner. Her English is excellent.

My chosen menu included:

  • Pad Thai
  • Fried Spring rolls
  • Stuffed Cabbage soup
  • Panang Curry with chicken

Ann first showed us how to use the tools in class – the knife, the gas stove and the little measuring spoon I normally use to eat miso soup with back home. You know what I’m talking about.

She would go through and do a demonstration and then allow us to do it on our own. Of course she made everything look super easy and I’m over there twitching like “wait, what, how much again?! *pant pant pant*” but Ann did a killer job of keeping everyone on track and breaking down the course in such an understandable way that I never messed up.

Her attitude in class made all the difference. She even dropped the F-bomb at one point in a joke which was just beyond adorable. Okay, so maybe I have a little lady crush on Ann. She built this business herself and does everything on her own – that’s admirable dude! She’s crushing it! Strong women are inspiring to me. Keep up the good work, you go girl!

At the end of the class I was feeling fat and happy. This was the biggest meal I’d had in Thailand so far. All the food I made was just absolutely scrumptious. Despite that, I wasn’t feeling confident I would be able to recreate it at home…


Ann gave us a full color, step-by-step-with-pictures recipe book. Not only was it in well-written english (again, with pictures zomg!) but she also included all the substitutions that had been mentioned at the market. WHEW! It even includes the recipes for the meals I chose not to make. 

Not saying that I’m excited to get home …but when [if] I do get home, I’m going to stink up my parent’s kitchen with fish sauce and Pad Thai. Maybe I’ll even be able to trick one of my family members into trying some amazing home cooked Thai food!

What’s your favorite Thai dish that you’d like Ann to teach you?

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xoxo ❤






Why you should bathe baby elephants instead of riding adult ones.

Who would say no to the chance of a lifetime: playing with baby elephants.

There are many opportunities regarding elephants Thailand. You can do everything from simply looking at them to riding them. Elephants have been the national symbol for Thailand for ages. Holding great significance to the Thai people, elephants have long been used during battle, for various jobs (such as hauling logs), and as a type of tourism.

I opted to spend the day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for my elephant fix. There is no riding at this facility, only mud baths!

Why, you ask, did I not go somewhere where I could ride them?

Riding on the backs of Giants

When picturing elephants in Asia, the mind immediately goes to an image of people riding elephants through the jungle, the natural habitat of the Asian Elephant.

With tourism demands increasing, the need for more domesticated elephants grew and grew. To support the never ending need for Elfies (selfies with elephants), elephants quickly became a commodity. An elephants gestation period sitting around almost two years (21 months), breeding domesticated elephants was too slow going. Where else could one acquire elephants?

You guessed it – from the wild. You’re most likely familiar with the concept of poaching elephants for their ivory, with over 100,00 elephants being killed in just three years. A less known issue is the capturing of wild elephants to support the growing tourism industry. This has lead to a severe endangerment of wild Asian Elephants.

Elephants, like all wild animals, are not just going to be like “oh yeah, hey human, let me do whatever you want and just forget my eons of evolution and instincts!”. Elephants especially, never forget.

The most desired wild elephants are babies, having been taken from their mother as soon as possible and then confined to a cage or a hole in the ground to reduce movement.

The baby elephants are then starved, deprived of sleep, beaten with clubs, and pierced & tortured with bull-hooks (also known as ‘elephant-goads’) to break their spirit. This process is called Phajaan or “the crush”. If you’re feeling morbid, here is a video of the process. I could not finish it. However, I did look at a picture.

What type of person could hurt this little guy? The kind I want to kill with my bare hands.
As the elephants grow older, they continue to live their lives in slavery and fear. Even if the organization you are looking at claims to be ethical and treat the elephants well now, the domestication process was still the same. Bull-hooks are often still used behind the scenes to assert dominance, and as a control mechanism throughout the day.

Additionally, and I know it’s hard to believe because of their size, but the elephant spine is not meant to support the weight of humans, much less a bench with multiple people seated on it. Same goes for Zebras – just because they look like horses doesn’t mean they are for riding.

EVEN IF elephants had evolved to be ridden, many organizations make the elephants work long hours without breaks so that they can make more money. Humans nor animals should ever be subject to this.

What makes Elephant Jungle Sanctuary different?

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a family run business that prides themselves on acquiring elephants from organizations that previously used elephants for riding. Often times, the elephants have served decades as riding elephants (elephants can live to be 100+!), and are no longer able to work. This is usually the only way to free the elephants from their slavery. Every now and then though, a compassionate success story does shine through – but this is hardly a normal occurrence.

About an hour and a half from Chiang Mai, the sanctuary has 6 different camps with different groups of elephants. I was picked up from my hostel and driven out to our camp – camp number 6 (the best, obviously).

During my day at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, (which cost me 50 USD) I was educated about the history of the elephants, in addition to information about why the activities that we will be doing are different – they are not only ethical, but helpful to the elephants.

My day with the elephants included meeting the babies, feeding bananas to the adults, and giving everybody mud baths! Did you know that elephants can only sweat through their toes? This can make it very hard to cool off, which is where mud baths come in. The mud assists with wicking away excess moisture and provides a cooling element.

After bathing the elephants in mud, we moved to the rinsing pool where they are rinsed off with natural running water. This further aids the cooling process and makes sure that any remains of possible elephant feces have been washed off. Yes, the elephants sometimes poop in the mud pool. Everybody poops, guys.

I have to say, I had some concerns about the elephants being forced to take these baths and get in the mud, but the goofs were playing it in before the group ever got to that part of the itinerary. It is obvious that elephants have emotions, just like us.

Bashful elephant.
I also had concerns about the same group being forced to bath multiple times a day.When I worked in the service industry, my hands would become chapped from washing them so much. It seems logical elephants would suffer from similar conditions. After speaking the the volunteers, I learned that each group only has one bath per day. Boasting a herd of over 50 elephants, there is plenty of dry skin to go around!

After the feeding, playing and rinsing we were served a delicious Thai lunch and the chance to talk to the volunteers. I asked them all kinds of questions about their time here, the elephants, what other industries are like in Thailand and how I can help. I’m considering coming back here for a week later in my trip to volunteer.

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary supports a happy and healthy lifestyle for the elephants. Think of it as a retirement community. The elephants are gently guided, respected and loved. I had a wonderful experience here – and the photos were free!

Despite the upbeat and happy environment of the sanctuary, and the playful nature of the elephants, if you look into their eyes closely, you can see that they will never forget the previous pain and anguish they suffered.

How can I help?

Weighing in at multiple tons (around  200 lbs at birth), adult elephants can consume up to 300 lbs of food per day! That’s like one of me plus an average sized adult!

You know what I’m about to say don’t you? Money makes the world go round. Donations will make the highest impact.

I encourage you to donate to Elephant Jungle Sanctuary since I can personally vouch for their intentions. However, there are many other organizations that are just as legit that could use your dollars.

I want to help, but I can’t make a donation!

As someone who always seems to be on a budget, I totally understand! Don’t worry, there are plenty of other ways you can help these beautiful and intelligent animals. ❤

  • Share this post!!!! Please for the love of God, sharing is caring. You never know who might have a special place for elephants in their heart, or who might be feeling generous for the day.
  • Spread the word about elephant mistreatment. If you know someone who is going to travel to Thailand, mention your newfound knowledge. If you ever hear someone say “I’d love to ride an elephant!” gently try to educate them. Most of the time, they simply do not know much of the information I’ve shared with you today. Hell, I almost rode an elephant myself because I saw pictures of a friend doing it when he visited Vietnam. I admit, it looked fun!
  • Do not ride elephants if you ever have the opportunity. Back home in the states, this goes for the circus, festivals and various carnival attractions. I will try to have an open mind and not judge you if you do it everyone has their own ethics I guess.
  • Volunteer to help animals in your hometown. Elephants aren’t the only ones who need our help!

I know this was a bit of a bitter-sweet post folks. Before you go, I have one last note about animal tourism, specifically tigers because they are still very under represented.

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xoxo ❤