I wiggled out of my shoes and mounted the steps of the Wat Phra Singh temple, one of Chiang Mai’s most venerated sites. After a week in Thailand, I was well aware that Buddhist monks are not allowed to touch women — or even directly accept anything a female attempts to hand them. And as I’m notoriously clumsy, I had been extra careful to give each monk I passed a wide berth lest I somehow trip and fall into him. Unless surreptitiously photographing their bright orange backsides, I tried to avoid even looking at the monks because I didn’t want to somehow embarrass them with my feminine wiles. So upon catching a glimpse of orange cloth at the altar of this temple, one of the smaller buildings of the Wat Phra Singh complex, I cast my eyes downward and shuffled quietly to the side.

As the name implies, Wat Phra Singh is renown for its Phra Singh, a gold “Lion Buddha” image. The statue arrived at its current home when a chariot ferrying it from Kamphaeng Phet province to Chiang Mai broke down. Today, more than 700 monks study on the temple complex, and Him and I had just watched a good number of them alight from the main building. But in this adjacent temple, the monks were still engaged in deep meditation. My peripheral vision hadn’t detected the slightest movement.

Curious, I became a little braver and glanced up. Three elderly monks sat cross-legged and facing the door I had just passed though. They weren’t looking in my direction, and so I continued to peer at them, timidly at first but then boldly. I stared. No movement.

I looked left and right, searching for another tourist so as to gauge someone else’s reaction to the monks’ miraculously frozen expressions. But Him was in an adjacent building, and I was alone. I stepped closer. No movement.

I watched in awe as a western woman walked up to one of the monks and snapped a photo (flash and all) about an inch from his face. She showed the picture to her friend and they both laughed. That settled it. Chiang Mai is known for its “Monk Chats,” Q&A sessions with inquisitive tourists, but these three certainly wouldn’t be participating: They were Madame Tussauds-grade wax monks. Suddenly feeling smug, I snapped a few photos myself.

Located about 700 km northwest of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is simultaneously an ancient and modern city, balancing its walled, moated interior and glut of 300+ temples with buzzing traffic, a massive night market and eclectic cuisine. In fact, this is a popular destination for foreigners seeking a Thai cooking course. We selected a 6-hour class with Basil Cookery ($33 USD each) based on its convenient location (directly across the street from our hotel, The Nest), but the class proved to be one of our favorite experiences of this World Trip. Here’s how it went down:

We climbed into the back of the school’s songthaew with two other couples: Julie and Julian, 30-something engineers from Perth living in Sydney; and Bobbi and Doug, a retired social worker and her doctor husband from Minnesota. We were off to the local market, where Benz, our instructor, would explain each ingredient used in the traditional Thai dishes we were about to make.

Benz, a friendly woman who punctuated each sentence with a nasally “Ahhhh,” proved extremely knowledgeable about everything from curry paste to eggplant varieties. She even offered great insight into the dangers of consuming sticky rice.

“When you eat the sticky rice, you get sleepy, but don’t sleep,” she said, displaying a single grain on her open palm. “Do exercise. If you eat it and sleep, you’re going to become a sticky rice.”

The six of us each selected what we wanted to cook (pad thai, spring rolls, black rice pudding, papaya salad, Tom Yum Soup, etc.) and assembled it under Benz’s watchful eye. Afterward, we shared a table and shared the dishes, and Benz shared the recipes by giving us each our own cookbook. Him and I ate so much that we both succumbed to food comas afterward — luckily we didn’t become a sticky rice.

It seems no trip to Chiang Mai is complete without zigzagging up the Doi Suthep mountain to catch a view of the city and wander around Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, said to be the holiest site in Northern Thailand. Catching a songthaew from the local university up to the temple cost 40 Baht each — and nearly our lunch. Riding a bench in the back of a swerving pickup truck with 10 other passengers is enough to make anyone carsick, but we managed to hold it together to complete the 18km trip.

Crowds of touts selling everything from trinkets to steaming corn cobs tipped us off that we had arrived at our destination. We jumped down from the truck and followed an ornate railing, a dragon’s impossibly long tail, up the 300-step staircase to the temple. At the top, entire families were marching single file to perform laps around a gold chedi, lotus flowers and laminated prayer cards in hand. Periodically, they stopped to stuff wads of currency into countless donation boxes.

During our time in Thailand, we’ve come to understand that generating merit through donations to temples, monasteries and the poor is an important part of Buddhism. And each temple offers countless methods for making such deposits including selling the rights to Buddha figurines, affixing personal prayers to burning incense coils and offering long rows of tin cups to collect each proffered coin with a satisfying plink. Some exceptionally trusting practitioners simply leave piles of cash on altars. I applaud the Buddhists’ generous spirit, but I’ve noticed very few temple “donation boxes” indicate what the money will be used for. (Perhaps the locals know, but it’s not clear to me). The bank of donation boxes at Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, however, were a little direct. My favorite was one labeled “Oldsters.”

“Mom!” I overheard one teen say as his mother emptied her pockets. “Everything’s made of gold. They don’t need any more donations!”

Unless the money is somehow destined for the poor, I could see his point.