Just last month, I felt like Christmas had come early this year when a good friend from university (all those months ago) came for tea and temples. Having had my parents already visit this wonderful country and do a bit down south, I was excited to head further north than Korat, and with that, further north than I’ve been before. Getting my friend out here was a little like Gandalf trying to convince Bilbo to leave her hobbit hole (here Bilbo takes an unusual plot twist and is a female character), but by the time she rocked up at Suvarnabhumi airport we were both ready for some new adventures.
Our 9-day plan was simple-sounding: Take a sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, take a boat to Chiang Rai and then onto Luang Prabang (Laos). Well, the best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. After just booking the tickets for a train to our first port of call, we realised that there were a lot of flaws in our plan – namely the most common form of transport from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang involved a 2 day slow boat journey. Hmm. We decided to take the true travellers’ path and just wing it.
I’ve never been a massive fan of Bangkok, but since it’s a travel hub, it’s almost unavoidable to spend some time there. I would, however, happily go back to Bangkok again if just for the combo of some Mexican food and sleeping in one of the swankiest hotels I’ve ever stepped in. Though we’d planned to explore the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun and all those “must dos”, the rooftop pool and mocktails somehow took up most of our morning. Oops.
The fate of our night was decided by an American walking a couple of foot behind us on the never-ending Sukhumvit. After overhearing us asking each other, “srsly where da bars at” he piped up with “actually, you’re about a 2 minute walk from one of the most well-known entertainment spots in Bangkok. If you stick to the first few bars, you’ll hear some good live music with fully-clothed bartenders and cheap drinks – by Bangkok standards at least.” He didn’t lie, but he also didn’t tell us that the spot was Soi Cowboy. Aside from Khao San Rd., Soi Cowboy is a notorious seedy underbelly of Bangkok, with a striking amount of gogo bars and ping pong shows (I urge you never to Google either of these) pinballing from one side of the soi to the other.
Although it was cut short for a date with the sleeper train, our second evening in Bangkok was a little more successful. We checked out the countless food stalls of Chinatown, and grabbed a pick and mix of tapas (Asian style). When you first arrive in Thailand, there’s a bit of a joke about the amount of times the food at street vendors will make you say “what is this?” The complete medley of cuisine in Chinatown made me feel like I was entering an unknown country again. After a lot of seafood and (uncertain about what kind of) animals roasting on spits in the middle of the sois, we found some real treats. Moral of this short tale is: seek and you shall find.
I love catching trains, and the sleeper train from BKK to Chiang Mai was one the best journeys I’ve had in a loooong time. The only real downside is that the train is very very very VERY cold, so I spent my night wearing two pair of trousers and a thick jumper I usually save for English springs. For a sound sleep and almost zero disturbances (the exception being a very chirpy man to make the beds) I can’t recommend getting a VIP cabin enough. The room isn’t exactly the Orient Express, but it has pink silk curtains and really what else could you want? It was a night’s accommodation and got us into Chiang Mai at 9am, so we were ready to get exploring right away.
Our time in Chiang Mai was pretty jam-packed. Bilbo ate her first pad Thai on arrival at one of the Mr. Kai’s in the Old City, and by the afternoon hit, we were jumping out of trees in the jungle of Mae Kampong.
There are a handful of zipline companies in Chiang Mai, all promising a unique and invaluable experience. On a recommendation, we went with Flight of the Gibbon, and now I pass this recommendation on, because the experience really was invaluable. Included was transport from and to our hostel, a small trek, water, a late lunch family style, and a quick detour to Kampong waterfall. We learnt about the conservation projects the company supports and the gibbons that reside in the jungle thanks to their help, not to mention the tea and coffee plantations surrounding us and those that work on them. There are dozens of platforms, each varying in length and height, as well as a few obstacles thrown in for good measure. The staff have a wicked sense of humour and kept us entertained throughout, but had a lot of knowledge about the conditions of those living in the area and the efforts they go to for work, including a daily basis of climbing unsafe structures to unsafe heights. One of the common trades is making honey from the Mae Kampong region by destroying the bee hives that hide at dizzying heights in the trees, as it’s the only way workers know how to make enough money for their families and self. Workers have been known to die from these exercises too.
We met a couple of nice people during our experience and together we went on the hunt for a good drink and some groovy music. What can only be described as a wild goose chase led by Bilbo eventually took us to Boy Blues Bar, which if anyone wants to save themselves some time, is on top of the night bazaar. The bar is really chilled out – picture beanbag-like seats and vegged out hippies everywhere – and is blue in music and in colour. It’s definitely worth stopping for a drink.
Our new friends of the evening took us to a strip of bars near the renowned Zoe in Yellow, which itself looked like its was holding a college disco as we passed, with people jumping to the generic sound of EDM that seems to resonate in most bars of Thailand. After a minute’s walk, it’s cheap drinks and Bob Marley music playlists galore, but the atmosphere is laid-back and it’s really easy to strike up a conversation with the person on the table next to yours.
Day 2 in Chiang Mai was started early and with a bit of a rough head while waiting for our pick up to our next adventure. Deep in a rural valley of the Chiang Mai province, Elephant Nature Park has been running since the ’90s and has continued to up its game, adopting dozens of elephant from all areas in Thailand that have gone through a various number of distressing experiences. Our day with our leader Som started with feeding the elephants a tasty breakfast of watermelon and cucumber in a few different areas. Som reckons that the majority of an elephant’s day is spent eating: elephants don’t need much sleep and so will only put their trunk down for 4-5 hours a night. When awake, aside from about 4 hours of bathing, or socialising, elephants will be grazing on something. Come noon, the human’s lunch was also fruit and vegetable based (YUM).
The afternoon was a lot of relaxed pottering along the river in the park, when the elephants started to trot over for their bath. Washing the elephants was a very personal experience. I’ve never seen elephants bathe before, but it seemed to contradict the idea of getting themselves clean when they proceeded to flick dirt over their backs with their trunks. Som explained this keeps the elephants’ skin protected from the full strength of the sun. After their bath, some elephants will roll their bodies in mud that has a texture of a paste to stay cool.
Our time at the Elephant Nature Park was an insight incomparable to anything you can read or watch in a documentary. The stories of the elephants at the park are shameful and many still carry their wounds with them, physical and emotional. Some are blind from their previous mahouts. Elephants pick up distress signals from vibrations in the ground, and some have been previously forced into lives in cities with a lot of traffic creating similar vibrations. The constant psychological distress for so long is still present in some of the elephants now, as the continuously rock back and forth, even in the safer pasture of the park. A particular beauty I met was an older elephant who had been led with a hook through her ear. When she came to the park, a worker put a flower through the hole in her ear – she loved it so much, the workers bought plastic ones that she can wear permanently.
Chiang Mai has a good dose of everything in a decently sized radius. The Old City is filled with backpackers, but locals are also spotted here there and everywhere so it was easy enough to find the better places to eat. Markets are popular with the locals and there are plenty of – some of the less tourist-orientated ones being Talat Worarot, which has a large (maybe a little too large) selection of clothes, food and other goods, and Talat Pratu Chiang Mai, when the best time to get food is in the eve. Chiang Mai is a veggie paradise with choice of restaurants, so for the first time in a long time, I found myself with a lot of options. Juicy 4U was a great little find, satisfying all sorts of conflicting cravings for vegetable, a burger and avocado (try living without for 8 months and you’ll understand). Unlike other major cities in Thailand, Chiang Mai’s cuisine remains at a reasonable price, but local prices go in the local spots by the canals and markets.
The to do list can be as long as you like in Chiang Mai too. There’s temples at the end of every soi, markets to scurry around and plenty of places to quench a thirst for Lanna history. Heading into the mountains and up the 309 steps to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is an enjoyable scenic drive in itself and is recommended by almost every guide going. The steps leading up the temple are part of a meditative process, the summit of the steps leading to a somewhat enlightened state. It’s customary to do three rounds of the pagoda, each round representing a release of feelings and attachments, or an overcoming of obstacles in life.
The base of the temple is surrounded with clobber and repeated souvenirs for a tourist audience, but that comes with the territory of a tourist attraction. We found some trinket wonders at the top, where the money goes to benefit the temple and its workers.
Halfway up (or down, whichever way you’re looking at it) the mountain from Doi Suthep are two different waterfall spots. One more renowned waterfall charges a farang visitor 200 baht, but another just a few minutes descent towards Chiang Mai city is free and is a great little place to stop off and refresh. All around are Thais doing the very same; we caught locals having picnics and whiskey under the trees, while children and families bathed in the water to refresh from the midday heat. It’s not majorly impressive, but it’s a little taste of a local’s life in the area.
We were quite fortunate with our timing in Chiang Mai, as the city cleared one of its central streets to host Intakin Festival. Intakin is the name of the city’s pillar, where it now resides in Wat Chedi Luang. The festival starts in accordance to the position of the moon in the six lunar month and lasts eight days. The temple grounds were filled with streams of people, who, as a local called Tomtam told me, would pray for rain in the coming months. Tomtam also stressed that this was one of the first years where apart from nid-noi (a little bit of) drizzle, there was no rain during the festival. Ratchadamnoen Road is closed off during those days and instead fills itself with Northern Thais grabbing dinner from fairy-lit street food stalls and playing carnival games. I felt that our few days in Chiang Mai was summed up in a moment of that evening.