I’ve now been to four cities/towns in Thailand (yes, I’m behind on my blog. Who would I be if I wasn’t!?) and Chiang Mai is by far my favorite. It’s the second largest city in Thailand but has the pace and vibes of a small town, which is my favorite. Everything is walkable which THANK YOU LORD JESUS, because it’s getting really frustrating how you have to rent a scooter (I refuse) to get anywhere, and there is so much to do. Aspen and I spent 6 nights & days there and it didn’t feel like long enough, I could stay for a month. Plus, our Thai Grandma lives there which made the whole experience so wonderful and homey!
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Aspen and I arrive at our hostel and it is the cutest hostel I’ve ever seen. It looks like a boutique hotel (for $8 a night), the staff is incredibly friendly and the beds are HUGE.
After we got settled and dressed for temples we went out exploring. We usually spend our first day just walking around and scoping things out, especially if we arrive into town later in the day. We ended up only visiting one temple and I can’t remember the name of it! We didn’t go inside, because we didn’t have small enough bills, so we just walked around the grounds which were really beautiful. There was the grove of trees that had different sayings nailed to them. It was really cool.
We got lost trying to find the next temple and ended up spending the rest of the day at this really cute cat cafe! There were cat ceramics everywhere, cat pillows, cat artwork. AND KITTENS. Well, big kittens. Like most cafes, shops and food places this one was the front of the people’s house and they had at least six different cats that were running around and playing while we hung out.
That evening we got dinner at the Night Bazaar. It was sort of like a night market, but they mostly sold food and after coming from the markets in Bangkok it was very touristy. It reminded me of going to the Saturday market in Portland, but at night.
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Today we went on an adventure to Doi Inthanon National Park. We took a tour because, once again, no scooters and it was so awesome. It was really small, there were maybe 6 of us, and our guide was really nice. It felt like hanging out with a local friend. Our first stop was a little waterfall where we were able to hike around and take pictures.
Look, Mom! We brought hats!
After about 30 minutes we climbed back into the van and headed to the summit of Doi Inthanon, which is actually the tallest mountain in Thailand. There was no lookout, but there was a shrine to the last king of Chiang Mai.
Our third activity was definitely my favorite. We went on a 2 hour trek trough the jungle. Usually we would have had to hire a local guide once we got there, but all the local people were working on the trails in preparation for the rainy season so we got to stick with our guide, Steve. As we hiked he pointed out bugs and branches to swing from, told us about different ways Thai people do agriculture and the growing seasons for different things like fruits, rice, flowers. We trekked to some waterfalls and a swimming hole. Everyone was a little apprehensive about swimming in the swimming hole, because the water was brown, but Steve said it had been blue the day before so it must just be raining up the mountain. I hope Steve was right, but even if he wasn’t that water was refreshing!! I didn’t feel overheated for the rest of the hike.
At the end of our hike we walked through some strawberry field that, with the rains, will soon be turning into rice fields. Steve taught us about different kinds of mangos and then we stepped out of the jungle and into a village, where we got to try some homegrown and roasted coffee. I hate coffee I general but Aspen said it was good *shrugs*.
Lastly, we went to the King and Queen’s pagodas. These pagodas were built in honor of the late King and the Queen, and they seriously looked like something built by aliens. They are so trippy looking. Of course the queen’s pagoda is five feet shorter than the King’s *insert eye roll* but it was definitely the more beautiful of the two. My favorite part were the gardens outside of the Queen’s pagoda and the bridge that crossed the coy pond. While the King’s pagoda didn’t have a garden it did have four stories of how Buddha became which was really interesting. Being in Thailand there are a lot of temples to Buddha, but there are also a lot of alters and sculptures to what look like gods and goddess. I was really confused by this as I thought that Buddha was God, so reading about how Buddha became and the different gods and goddesses was really interesting.
We finished our day by eating bugs and meeting our Thai Grandma. There was a girl, who we met in Bangkok, named Valerie who also happened to be staying at our hostel. Somehow we got on the subject of eating bugs and she just happened to have bought a bag to try some. So upstairs we headed to try our first bugs. I ate a grasshopper which really wasn’t bad. It kind of tasted like seaweed and now really like bug. It was kind of crispy though a little juice did squish out. Then I tried what looked like a silk worm. It was absolutely disgusting, and tasted like how you would think a worm would taste.
After our bug taste testing Aspen and I headed out (Valerie and this other girl whose name I can’t remember we’re heading to the Night market) to get food. One too of our hostel being lovely, it’s right next to a good street which is so nice and easy, except everything was closed! Eating is kind of stressful because we cannot seem to get on the eating schedule. We can’t even figure out if there is a schedule. Things seems to be open whenever: the mornings and afternoons, just the morning, just the afternoon, every third Thursday, closed on Mondays, click your heels together and maybe we’ll open. We turn around and head back to the hostel, hoping we can ask about places to eat, and run into Valerie and Girl-from-Madagascar-but-lives-in-paris who are also trying to decide where to eat. Thai Grandma is sitting downstairs (where she hangs out almost every night because her family owns the hostel) and asks what kind of food we’re looking for, and then says she will drive us to the market and a place to get really good Pad Thai. We climb into her car and off we go to eat at the restaurant of one of her former students. It was called Aroy Dee and the owner as so delighted to have us. He kept coming out to practice his English and tell us about his restaurant. It was really wonderful and the food was delicious – best mango sticky rice I’ve had.
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Aspen & I had the brilliant idea to do to the Saturday Walking street, walking streets at markets but they shut the road down, and we walked all over town looking for it. It was hot and we were getting kind of annoyed because we followed the map to the street and there was nothing. Turns out walking streets are only at night! Ha! So we spent the day at the cat cafe planning how we were going to get from Thailand to Laos, which sounds like an adventure. That night we went to a Muay Thai fight. Can you believe! I, someone who hates violence, paid money to go see people fight each other. It was definitely way out of my comfort zone, which is why I did it, but it’s also a huge cultural thing in Thailand so I really wanted to do it. Aspen and I were so nervous before we went, we both thought it was going to be a Mike-Tyson-nite-your-ear-off-blood-everywhere brawl and even almost canceled. It was nothing like we excepted it to be. I mean, they still fought each other but there was no blood and when anything looked like it might get a little too intense the referee would separate them and they would start over. There was so much respect (they would bow before each fight and hug after) and comrade — it really looked like they were just having fun. I feel like going really did give me a different perspective on Thai culture. It was really cool and interesting to see how they would bow before each fight, go to each corner and… do something. I didn’t know what they were doing but it was obviously part of a ritual because every single one of them did the same preparations before their fight began. The best part though, was that during the breaks (when they were getting rinsed and drinking water and stuff) this pump up electronic mucus would be playing, but as soon as the fight started it would switch to this traditional Thai instrument that sounded like something a snake charmer would play. The contrast was so hilarious, I couldn’t help but laugh. Every time.
Also, the announcer kept letting out these high pitched giggles that were so funny but also kind of frightening.
There was another night when Thai grandma drove us to get food and I think it was this one…
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Aspen’s birthday! This was a pretty busy day, we visited Doi Suthep (a temple up the mountain), went to the spa and then a traditional Thai/Lanna dinner. The temple was so big and beautiful. Getting there was a little scary as our driver, like most people driving in Thailand, ignored the dividing line, sped all over the road and flew around corners. Almost everyone was hanging on for dear life and even the Thai land was clutching the handrail and nervously giggling. After our wild ride we climbed what had to be hundreds of stairs to the temple at the top, where we walked around and soaked everything in.
Then it was time for our first Thai massage. Most people you asked will say that Thai massages are… intense. When advertising for them a lot of massage places have this picture of people on their stomach, arched up like a scorpion, while they arms are behind them and being pulled by the message therapist. BUT they are smiling. Sounds really right? Not at all. I was prepared for it to be intense and a little nervous but once again, when in Thailand. Before going in I pictured it was going to be like that scene from Charlie’s Angels, when Lucy-Liu jumps on the guy’s back and is stepping all over him. It was. It was like that. We picked a package that was an hour facial and an hour Thai Massage. So while Aspen is blissed out, getting creams rubbed on her face and sleeping, my girl is literally on my table, knees on my back, kneading me with her elbows, stretching and folding me into a pretzel. It was not relaxing, but it was interesting. At one point, and this is after the hands behind my back scorpion stretch, she places my hands so they are locked behind my head, puts a pillow on my back and the bends me in a backbend over her knees. Like when my dad used to super man me when I was a kid but upside down back bend style. Um, it didn’t feel good and when it was my turn for a facial I was ready. I know I’m not selling the Thai Massage, but my body really did feel better once it was all over but yeah. I did lots of deep breathing. The hour long facial was amazing, I fell asleep and snored three times.
For dinner we headed to a traditional Lanna dinner & show. Honestly.. it wasn’t that great. The food was okay, and it was fun sitting on the floor and watching the traditional Thai dances but.. they were kind of boring. AH! That’s really all I have to say about that.
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The best day. Elephant day. Aspen and I didn’t plan much when it came to this trip, just a little rough planning, but one thing we knew we wanted to do was see elephants. Anything having to do with elephants is really tricky because a lot of places aren’t humane. Even though they call themselves sanctuaries they still abuse the animals and break their spirits in order to tame them. We chose a tour with Elephant Nature Park and I’m so happy with it. Elephant Nature Park uses a positive reinforcement (all the bananas) when it comes to bonding and caring for their elephants. All the elephants in this sanctuary have been rescued from different situations in which they were abused by humans: elephant trekking, logging, circus, begging with elephants on the street, etc., and therefore many of them have psychological and physical injuries (Broken backs, blinded, missing ears, broken feet). And while these animals can never return to the while, ENP rehabilitates them and then tries to gives them a retirement as close to being wild as possible. We spent the day at a project, outside of the park, where three elephants are living the most natural life they can in their retirement. I think two of the elephants came from logging camps and one from trekking. I know that one a hole in its ear that the Mahout (elephant rider/ owner) used to use to control the elephant. We were told that Mahout is kind of a negative word now when it comes to elephants, they are usually drunks who secretly abuse there animals, and so ENP (Elephant Nature Park) call the people who care for the elephants their “best friend”. There is no riding or poking or leading on chains. The best friends persuade them with food and kind of let the elephants move at their own pace. Now that you know a little bit more about how ENP works, and why we picked it, onto our day!
We arrived pretty early and spent a few minutes drinking tea on a deck, and watching one of the elephants meander in the field below. Then we went to the food peeping station and started cutting up watermelon. I’m not even joking, 30 seconds after the guide warns us about cutting ourselves I cut my finger! The baby (yes, there was a baby. Not a smart choice) next to me made a noise and it distracted me. So I spent the next 10 minutes trying to hide and pretend like I didn’t cut my thing while I cleaned it and tried to stop the bleeding. I think I got away with it. Then up the elephants came, followed by their best friends, and we got to start feeding them.
Okay, elephants are really huge. I knew they were big, but knowing they are big and then feeding and petting them are completely different things. I was definitely so freaked out at first — I had this irrational fear that they were going to wrap me in their trunks and crush me. All three were really gentle and sweet but one of definitely very greedy. She wouldn’t eat unless you put, at least, three bananas in her trunk and even then she would hold it out waiting for you to try to stack more. She was less gentle with her trunk, would kind of pull on your hand, and she got fed all the leftovers and peels. And then still wanted more.
After we fed them a morning snack we got to walk beside them down to the river. Which was even more terrifying because there was nothing between us and the elephants, and they really wanted the bananas in our bags. I must have looked like I was going to bolt because at one point the guide told me, “don’t run, if you run they’ll run”. The “best friends” were right there though, talking to them and redirecting them if they got too up in our business. That baby that was in our group ended up being terrified of the elephants, not surprised, so him and his mom headed back at this point.
While we walked to the river our guide told us more about the efforts Elephant Nature Park is making to save elephants, and more facts about elephants in general. Did you know they are the third smartest animal? Behind Chimps and Dolphins. Knowing this mad it even sadder to witness all the hurt people have put them through.
At the river we got help them cool off by splashing them while buckets of water.
The river divided this project from the main park and we could look across and see other herds of elephants. One even had two babies!
Once water play was over we headed through the rehabilitation center on our way to lunch. The rehabilitation center was really sad. We just walked through, but we passed some elephants who were still recovering after being rescued. One had been blinded, one was missing an ear, one had a broken back and one was limping because it’s leg had been broken and then healed weird. We didn’t spend any time with them, as they were new.
After stuffing our faces on vegetarian Thai food, I was so hungry, we headed back over to prepare banana rice balls with vitamin for the elephants. They came back up and we fed them again. I got a lot closer this time because I had gotten used to how big they were and they were just so sweet.
This was such a magical day and it still feels so unreal to me that I got to have this experience. I got to hang out with elephants and feed them all day! What! Feels surreal. The best part though was that the elephants seemed so genuinely happy, and how obvious it was that the people really cared for them. There were no “uh, this is weird” moments. All the people were so kind and gentle with them and the elephants were so amazing and sweet. Everything was wonderful. I don’t think anything can beat this day.
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We just chilled hard this day. Aspen napped and I tried to catch up in my journal and blog (the blog didn’t work out so well). In the evening Thai Grandma dropped off us at this fancy mall we just “had to see” before we left. We got dinner there. She also dropped us off to dinner another night but I can’t remember which it was…
I really loved Chiang Mai and even after spending almost a week there I was sad to leave. Everything has been so lovely. Our hostel was the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed at, the staff made us feel like we were hanging out with family friends, our Thai Grandma was such a delight, and we went on so many great excursions!
Oh, and the rainy season has officially begun.
Spoiler alert: I’m actually finishing this blog post in the hostel in Chiang Mai. I’m days behind, remember!