Welcome to #TBT Travel Thursdays! I love revisiting past adventures, especially those as exotic as Thailand. Perhaps one of the most memorable stops on our trip was the northern city of Chiang Mai. If you are heading to Thailand you HAVE to make sure to include this in your itinerary.
This was when we really started to feel like we were on a special trip. The feel of the city is a whole different ballgame from Bangkok. It moves at a much slower pace and there are pockets where you forget you’re even in a city at all. The food is out of control and the people are perhaps some of the friendliest I have ever met, period.
Getting to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is easy and there are several ways to do it. We decided to fly Thai Airways. Our flight was cheap and we were there within hours of leaving our Bangkok hotel.
There is also an overnight train that we had originally booked before changing our plans at the last minute. I am accustomed to traveling by train in Europe, so I thought the overnight train to Chiang Mai would be a cool experience, however, I heard many reports that the train was often delayed and many travelers left with bed bugs or bites. This is not to say that you wouldn’t have a good experience.
If you are interested in taking the overnight train, you can check it out on THIS website or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. They will even deliver your ticket to your hotel for maximum convenience.
PRO TIP: One of my closest friends is an Air Traffic Controller and I often go to him for advice on which airlines to fly and which airlines to avoid. For my trip to Thailand, he gave me the following advice:
If you have a choice, always go with Thai Airways. The Thai aviation authority was recently issued a red flag for safety and they are actively trying to get out of the red zone. That being said, Thai Airways would be his pick for flying within Thailand.
The alternative would be Air Asia, which he told me to steer clear of. To be honest, we flew both airlines. Air Asia had better prices and sometimes their flight options just fit our time table a bit better. That being said, if you are a nervous flyer, I would stick to Thai Airways.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at, quite possibly, the best hotel in Chiang Mai for a budget traveler. No, it was not as cheap as a hostel, yes, there are plenty of other places that fall into the same category, but for location, service, and room quality, this place is an A+++. I simply cannot recommend Villa Duang Champa enough.
Our flight landed early and we arrived at the hotel before check in. Our room wasn’t available yet so they offered us a slightly larger room at a discounted rate if we wanted to get settled. The room they showed us was fantastic! It was on the top floor and a corner room with a balcony. It was impeccably clean and comfortable.
Note: Travelers with disabilities should be warned that there is no elevator!
Once we were checked in, Tony (the manager on duty) helped us plan our excursions. I was completely shocked at just how helpful and patient he was with us throughout our entire stay. He went above and beyond to make sure his guests were comfortable and enjoying all that Chiang Mai has to offer.
The best thing about this hotel is the LOCATION. It is located right in the heart of the Old City and on the street that hosts the famed Sunday Market in Chiang Mai. Come Sunday evening, the entire street fills with local vendors. Art, food, clothing, souvenirs, you name it. The cafe and bar features a band on Sunday nights where you can sit with a drink, listen to music, and people watch.
WHERE TO EAT
Once again, your best bet for food are the street vendors. During our stay we perfected, what I like to call, the art of Thai Tapas. This simply consists of different small dishes from a variety of street vendors. We were able to get a real feel for the Northern Cuisine this way while testing out foods that we might not normally order. This was best accomplished at the Sunday Night Walking Street.
If you’re looking for a sit down meal, look no further than Huean Phen Restaurant. The curry noodle soup is completely out of this world. Andrew ordered seconds! This is a wonderful taste of Northern Thai cuisine in a non-touristy environment.
WHAT NOT TO MISS
There is plenty to see in Chiang Mai. The city is full of beautiful temples and ruins that are not to be missed. As long as you follow your guidebook, you’ll be good to go. You almost don’t even need one as you’ll happen upon temples at every turn. Go into each one as they each have their own character.
Perhaps one of the most memorable days of my many travels was our trip to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
Before we landed in Chiang Mai, I knew that I wanted to interact with elephants as it is something Thailand, and more specifically, Chiang Mai is known for. It was extremely important to me to do this in an ethical way. Unfortunately, there are many companies who abuse the elephants in their care in order to make a quick buck off of unsuspecting tourists. The number one way to spot one of these companies is if they offer elephant rides where you are actually sitting in a metal chair on top of the animal. This is inhumane and there are many other amazing ways to experience these amazing creatures.
**Should you feel as though you just HAVE TO ride an elephant, make sure you are going with a company that offers bare back rides.**
Here are the reasons I chose the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary –
- The Elephants are wild. The Sanctuary does not actually own the animals. This lineage of elephants has been coming into this mountain village each day for generations. They have come accustomed to getting food, bananas, and sugar cane daily. At the end of each day, they retreat into the jungle to sleep. I found this astounding. Our guide, Robert, who has lived in the village since he was born, says that every day there is a chance that the elephants won’t come, yet every day they emerge from the jungle, ready to meet new people.
- There is no riding the elephants in this excursion. Instead, you meet each elephant by introducing yourself with their favorite treats: bananas and sugar cane. There were four adults and two babies in the pack when we visited. One of the adults was also pregnant! We were led up a hill to get introduced to these beasts and learn how they are trained as well as how to approach them. The elephants eat right out of your hand and let you approach and touch them.
- The next leg of your journey is bathing them. The elephants are brought down to the river that runs through the village where you bathe them with brushes and buckets. Don’t be afraid to jump right in. The water is warm and watching the male baby elephant play in the water just like a human child would, was truly special.
- The final activity of the day is the mud bath. Elephants use the mud to give themselves a protective coat that help them keep warm during the night. Just as expected, that baby elephant affectionately known as “Naughty Boy” due to the fact that he was in his terrible twos, ran up the hill and did a full belly flop into the mud pit before rolling around to show everyone his belly. I have never seen an animal smile so big. Andrew and I fully embraced the experience and jumped right in next to the elephants along with about half of our group. I have to tell you, there is nothing like having a mud fight with wild elephants. Truly a special memory. Don’t worry, you wash off afterwards in the rivers, just like the locals would do.
- We read nothing but great reviews of the people who run this program and they did not disappoint. Robert was HILARIOUS. He was approachable, talkative, and just as interested in asking where we were from as we were about his village and elephants. Our day would not have been the same without him.
PRO TIP: There is currently no humane way to visit with tigers in Chiang Mai. As tempting as it is, please try and refrain from supporting places like Tiger Kingdom. They use drugs to subdue their animals and place them on chains mere feet long so that tourists can safely take pictures with these exotic beasts. You’ll leave with your wallet feeling lighter and your heart feeling heavier. There is nothing more upsetting than seeing abused animals so please think twice before giving them your hard earned money. There are plenty of other worthwhile things to see!
On our second day, we decided to do a hike through the jungle. Once again, we took our good friend, Tony’s, recommendation and went north of the city. We met up with a guide who led us deep into the jungle. This is the only time I would have used my hiking boots on the whole trip and my sneakers did just fine. The hike brought us deep into the farm country of Thailand, through heavily wooded jungle, to a watering hole/waterfall that we were able to swim in and a bat cave.
There is one thing you should know about hiking in Thailand: BRING WATER. I am not kidding you. If you remember from my post last week, the humidity in Thailand is staggering. Even if you’re from the east coast where humidity is a norm during the summers, nothing will compare to this. You sweat out more fluids in one hour than you can consume. Combine the heat with strenuous physical activity and you can have a deadly combination.
Andrew, an experienced hiker, ended up loosing his footing and cutting his hand open. He would love me to explain it as a harrowing injury that he barely survived, but in reality, it was just a flesh wound that bled a lot. Our guide was quick to whip out first aid and tend to the “fatal” injury.
I, on the other hand, prospered in the heat and ended up leading our group! Our guide was so impressed by my skills that he named me “jungle queen” and even made me a crown. You can only imagine the look on my face when he presented this to me. Andrew knew right then and there that he would never hear the end of it. I brag, because normally, I’m holding down the fort in the middle of a hiking group. Not too fast, not too slow. So I was pleasantly pleased with myself and made it a point of letting everyone know.
Overall the hike was strenuous and perhaps not entirely worth it. About three quarters of our way through, we were walking along a dirt road when a truck carrying other tourists passed us. Knowing that the hike you just did was mostly accessible by vehicle is not something you want to see after hiking for 6 hours in excruciating heat. That being said, it was a great way to see the jungle “off the beaten path” and meet new people in the process.
Leaving Chiang Mai was bittersweet. We met some amazing fellow travelers, had experiences of a lifetime, and ate like we were kings. Thankfully, we were headed south to the islands, which were about to blow our minds…