The north of Thailand is a place that a lot of backpackers seem to speak very highly about. You have Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pai that are all very popular. Could it be the climate, the chilled vibe or something more specific that draws them there? Whatever the reason, Harmony and I were going to give it a go!
We were spending a few days in Chiang Mai and we were staying at Deejai Backpackers. It would've been a pretty good place to stay if we just wanted to party, but we had a lot more in mind and did our own thing anyway. With the hostel being on the west side of the old town, it was in a pretty good location. There weren’t many other restaurants around, but the hostel did serve breakfast, dinner and snacks. They also had their very own pool and bar just down the road. Our four-person dorm room had a fan and hot water, but my bed was the worst thing I've ever slept on and gave me the worst night's sleep of my life. Also, whilst running the risk of being too negative, the wifi was unusable, the coffee was unbearable and the laundry service was pants (pun intended).
When we first arrived in Chiang Mai, we got straight to sightseeing. I had a list of temples that we should see, so we were going to walk from one to the other. This is by far the best way to see a city and sus out what it’s like! First of all, we found a nice café called Blue Note, where we had a delicious and inexpensive breakfast. We continued to find a lot more cafés and restaurants that we liked throughout the following days – Honey Boon, Ugo and Miranda's.
The first temple on the list was Wat Phra Singh, as it was the closest to our hostel. It was free to go in and had lots to see (including a market). Wat Phan Tao was second on our list. It was less crowded and more peaceful! We then made our way to Wat Chedi Luang, which was just around the corner. The “City Pillar” (a large, ancient monument) is a must see and is included in the 40 Baht admission fee. Unfortunately, they don’t let the public use it as a panoramic viewpoint!
As we were ticking off a lot of the places we wanted to see, we were also finding a tremendous amount of other temples along the way. A lot of them were quite small though and not nearly as impressive. To name a few, we saw Wat Si Koet, Wat Tung Yu and Wat Chai Phrakiat. The old town is also full of ancient, stone stupas. They’re not that impressive either, but they are interesting!
That evening, we went to a night market that everyone was recommending. Every Sunday, Rachadamnoen Road near the Phae Gate fills with food, clothing and souvenir stalls. Countless people shuffle their way down the street in a fairly civilised manner, creating a current like that of a flowing river. It was a market like I had never experienced before and well worth the quick walk through, even if we didn't want or need anything.
When we got back to the hostel, my stomach started to turn and I spent the night violently vomiting (gross, but it really was that bad). In the morning, Harmony got me some toast, which made me feel a lot better. After a bit more rest and some painkillers, I was ready to leave the hostel room. So, at about 3pm, we went to a temple (Wat Chiang Man) that we were yet to see in the north-east area of the old town. There were many beautiful buildings and an old stupa to see. What made the stupa more interesting than all of the others, were the large elephants coming out from the base and the shining, golden pinnacle.
The following morning, I was feeling a lot better, which was lucky because we were visiting an elephant sanctuary. The best sanctuary (Elephant Nature Park) was fully booked, so we had to opt for a risky recommendation (Elephant Family Sanctuary). At 7am, we were picked up from our hostel and crammed into mini van. The group size was small, but so was the mini van. The journey took about an hour and a half, with a rest stop half way at a market. The closer we got, the more scenic the journey became with all of the mountains and untouched forests. The mini van stopped by some farmland and we walked through some sugarcane plantations, where they were growing some of the elephants’ food. A few sketchy bamboo bridges allowed us to cross over some rushing rivers and took us to the sanctuary.
At first, I was troubled to see that the sanctuary wasn't much of a sanctuary at all. I was expecting an elephant utopia and a home where they can be themselves and completely free. This didn't come close. The elephants had to keep to a routine and were instructed to "kiss", spray and splash us. It was a performance. They were in and out of the mud, and then to the river, to be bathed and washed by us tourists, just so us tourists could have exciting activities to partake in and a fun-filled day. One elephant wouldn't stop swaying from side to side, which is typically a sign of distress.
However, it’s safe to say that I’m no expert and you could argue that these traits and tricks were learned before their life at the sanctuary. Furthermore, the activities are probably only in place so tourists will come and spend there money; in turn, supporting the animals. We were told that the elephants are cared for and fed day and night, so they are probably at least a little better off.
First, we fed the elephants some bananas and sugarcane from the other side of a bamboo barrier. Then came the mud bath, where I couldn’t help but feel like I was standing shin deep in animal waste, and then came the cleaning of the elephants (and ourselves) in a relatively deep river. After our big, buffet lunch and some sunbathing, we were taken to Mae Wang Waterfall, which was close by. Only a few of us went in for a swim, which, in retrospect, was a wise decision. As soon as I jumped in, I was scrambling for a way to get out; scared for my live because of how fast flowing it was. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time here and were back to our hostels by no later than 5pm.
The next day, over twenty people from our hostel piled into the back of two trucks and were taken thirty minutes out of the city to a nearby waterpark – known as the “Grand Canyon”. The admission fee is typically 300 Baht, but we paid 280 Baht because we went in a big group. On top of that however, was 50 Baht for a locker and 100 Baht deposit for the locker key. The food was a little bit expensive to, but everything was well worth the money! The skies were blue and the sun was hot, so we knew we were going to have a lot of fun.
After changing our clothes and putting on a life jacket/buoyancy aid, we made our way down to the water’s edge and began running around and slipping off of the floating, inflatable, “Total Wipeout” styled course. Harmony and I tried racing each other round whilst trying not to fall in, but we inevitably did and immediately felt refreshed. There was also a “blob” that your friends jump on to send you flying through the air, and a trampoline diving board! We spent a good few hours here and left with aches, scrapes and friction burns.
The following day was our last in Chiang Mai, but we weren’t leaving until 8pm. So, we decided to hire some bikes for 50 Baht each and tried to make our way to the nearby mountain range. Because of the road system and the way that traffic is managed here, it took us about an hour before we even got out of the old town. The only way to get to the mountain was via the main roads, which were seriously scary.
Many different waterfalls can be found on the mountain, as well as stellar scenery and a few temples that overlook the surprisingly big city. Perhaps hiring bicycles was in fact a bad idea, as we only made it to one of the waterfalls - Wang Buabaan. As soon as we got to the base of the mountain, we found ourselves at the bottom of a steep incline and we knew that we weren't going to be able to make it much further. Thankfully, we were able to find a back entrance to the waterfall and could even avoid what I think was a ticket office! We were sure that it was a dead end when we came across it, but we locked up the bikes anyway and continued on what looked like a footpath. After climbing a few steps and walking a short way through the jungle, we came to a rock covered clearing. You could hear the water flowing and only a few other people there, so it was very peaceful. The main falls were fairly high but, sadly, there wasn't that much water. So, I focused less on the falls themselves and got better photos by showing more of the landscape in the background.
I was glad to be leaving Chiang Mai on a positive but, all in all, our visit wasn't perfect. Obviously, I got quite ill and I really would have liked to explore more of the mountain range, as well as the 3D art museum and Wat Phan Tao again for a better photo at blue hour. I was okay with not seeing the White Temple in Chiang Rai though because, although it's so unique and magnificent, it is just another temple.
We weren’t going to stay any longer in Chiang Mai because we were longing for the islands in the south and the paradise that awaited us. That said, for people that fly into Bangkok to start their travels, I can see why they like the north so much. It is in fact the climate, the chilled vibe and the elephants that draw people to the north, and aside from that, it makes a suitable stop for those that are on their way to/from Laos or Myanmar.