Courses in Chiang Mai
In recent years there's been a steady increase in the number of visitors who come to Chiang Mai looking to return home with a new skill by taking a self-improvement course. The most popular subject is how to cook Thai food, followed the Thai massage and meditation, but perhaps the most challenging of all, though vital for anyone planing to spend any length of time here, is the Thai language.
There has been an explosion of interest in preparing Thai food, and many Chiang Mai guest house and cookery schools now offer lessons. The original and still the best is Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, 1-3 Thanon Moonmuang (Tel. 053-206388, www.thaicookeryschool.com) run by Somphon and Elizabeth Nabnian. They offer courses of one to five day (from 900-4200 Baht), covering common Thai and one or two traditional Lanna dishes, including the use of substitute ingredients available in the West. Each day begins with either an introduction to Thai ingredients, shopping in the market, making curry pastes or vegetable carving. While the fees might seem expensive, the courses are well worth it, including the first-class lunch, seasonal fruit tasting and a recipe book. Somphon, an expienced chef himself, also offer pricey evening master classes. Courses are held either at The Wok restaurant or at the Nabnian's house, a 15 min drive out of town (transport provided).
Book in advance as the classes are very popular and the number of students is limited but you can just turn up and attempt to secure a place. Also recommended is Thai Master, with an office at 5 Thanon Ratchamanka (Tel. 053-277823) , who charge 700 Baht for a one-day course, as well as offering half-day and evening classes, two and three day courses and dedicated fruit and vegetable carving classes. The Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School, whose in-town office is at 10/1 Soi 5, Thanon Ratchadamnoen (Tel. 053-224740), offers something slightly different, with the chance to pick your own organic vegetables, herbs and fruits for cooking on their farm thirty minutes' drive from town (transport provided) one or two day courses 800 Baht /day.
Thai massage courses
While the best place to study Thai massage in Thailand is considered to be Bangkok's Wat Pho, some well-regarded schools make Chiang Mai a popular alternative as a more relaxing base for courses that can run for several weeks. The longest-established centre is the forty-year-old Old Medicine Hospital (aka Shivagakomarpaj after the Indian hermit who is said to have founded the discipline over two thousand years ago), off Thanon Wualai opposite the Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center (Tel. 053-275085, 053-201663, www.thaimassageschool.ac.th). Highly respected ten-day courses in English (4000 Baht), under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, are held twice a month, though the group size can get a bit too big at popular times; two-day foot massage courses are held at weekends (2000 Baht).
Also accredited by the Ministry of Education, and highly recommended by past pupils is the Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai (www.1thaimassage.com), which has two locations: TMC to the northeast of town on the Mae Jo road, 2 km beyond the superhighway (Tel. 053-854330) and TMC2 on Thanon Nimmanhemin next to Chiang Mai University's Contemporary Museum (Tel. 053-907193). Three levels of Thai massage training are on offer, each taking five days, with the foundation courses costing 4000 Baht or you can just do the first three days of this for 2900 Baht. Thai foot reflexology is also taught to adults two days 2900 Baht and to children over 12 years old: 4 half-days 2400 Baht. All courses include transportation and lunch.
Massage courses are also offered by the Sunshine Network (www.asokananda.com or www.thaiyogamassage.infothai.com), an international group of practitioners and teachers founded by the highly respected German teacher, Harald Brust, aka Asokananda, who emphasizes the spiritual aspect of what he calls Thai yoga massage or Ayurvedic bodywork. Led either by Asokananda or one of his followers, twelve-day beginners' courses 9900 Baht, including extremely basic accommodation, simple vegetarian rice meals and transportation, are held at a rural retreat in a hill-tribe village between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, with hands and feet, the latter involving balancing from a rope (10,900 Baht). For information about the courses in Chiang Mai, ask for Joe or Tom at Goodwill Motorcycles, 26/1 Soi 2, Thanon Chiang Moi (Tel. 053-251186).
Northern Insight Meditation Centre, at Wat Ram Poeng (aka Wat Tapotaram) on Thanon Canal near Wat Umong (Tel. 053- 278620, www.watrampoeng.cjb.net) holds disciplined Vipassana courses ( with a rule of silence, days beginning at 4am, no food after noon and so on), taught by Thai monks with translators. The minimum stay is ten days, with a basic courses lasting 26 days and payment is by donation. The other well-known and respected monastery of meditation retreats in the area is Wat Phra That Chom Thong, 60km southwest of Chiang Mai. Once a year, the Sunshine Network organizes a Vipassana meditation and yoga retreat in the jungle with Asokananda. For more of a soft adventure tour in meditation, contact Sivali (Tel. 053-464592, www.sivalicentre.com), a rural meditation centre in the foothills of Doi Inthanon, 40km southwest of Chiang Mai, where to changes of white clothing are provided and each person gets his/her own traditional-style hut. The course director's approach to meditation, however, is infused by the ten years she spent as a Buddhist nun, most of it in solitude in forest monasteries throughout Thailand. Five or ten day sessions are held twice a month.
For an introduction to meditation and Buddhist culture, go to a talk at Wat Umong on a Sunday afternoon or sign up for one of the free overnight courses run by Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, based at Wat Suan Dork on Thanon Suthep. These involve discussions about Buddhim, meditation, walking meditation, chanting, almsgiving and a spot of Thai cooking and begin at about 2pm on a Saturday or Sunday, before departure to the training centre on Doi Suthep, returning to Wat Suan Dork at 12.30pm the next day. As places are limited you should make contact in advance (Tel. 053-278967 ext 200, www.cmbu.net).
The longest-established and best place to learn Thai is the AUA (American University Alumni) Language Centre, 24 Thanon Ratchadamnoen (Tel. 053-211377, 053-278407, www.auathailand.org/chiangmai), which is certified by the Ministry of Education. Several levels of classes are offered, starting with spoken Thai for beginners (60 hr over about 6 weeks; 4000 Baht), with class sizes limited to 5-12 students. Individual and small group instruction can also be arranged, starting from 300 Baht per hour for 1-2 students.