Living Like Locals in Chiang Mai
When you’re on the road for so long, sometimes you just need a few days in a place that feels like home. So after two weeks in Cambodia and almost a month in Vietnam we decided to head back to Thailand, this time to the North of the country. We planned on spending about a week in Chiang Mai and three days in Pai before heading out to see the rest of the cities on our list. Immediately after arriving in Chiang Mai we felt like this place had the perfect vibe we needed to rest and recharge. In fact, over the next five days we lived like locals: I found a great Thai iced coffee stand I frequented many times, we went to the dentist, the doctor, Jeremy caught some NBA playoff games and we hung out with a couple of different traveler friends we’d met over the course of our trip.
Chiang Mai is known for having over 200 wats (Buddhist temples), and so the day we arrived we decided to just wander up and down the streets and alleys stopping in whichever wats we happened to stumble upon. Every wat is extraordinarily unique and often gilded in gold or silver with lots of ornate carvings throughout. The dragons and lions are always my favorite!
I was excited to learn that the resident dog of the guest house we were staying at had a litter of six, four-week old puppies to play with! I was pretty much in heaven with the chill atmosphere, a bit of cooler weather and endless supply of puppies to play with! Our guest house was also about five minutes walking distance from a local market with some delicious food stalls offering Thai fried chicken, crepes, fresh fruit, iced coffee shakes and more.
One of the great things about Thailand is the amazing affordable healthcare. So on our second day in Chiang Mai I visited a dentist for a high quality teeth cleaning by a Thai dentist who’d been educated at UCLA! We don’t know when we’ll have dental insurance when we get back so it was super nice to get my bi-annual teeth cleaning while abroad for a super inexpensive price. We also spent some time catching up on the blog, working on our resumes (who wants to hire us?!?) and visited the night bazaar. The night bazaar occurs every evening just east of the old city and you can find any sort of souvenir you can possibly imagine. There is also a whole food stall section with all of our Thai favorites like pad thai, tom yam soup, som tom (papaya salad) along with some Northern Thai dishes like spicy sausage and Khao Soi, a delicious curry noodle soup. We called it a fairly early night as the next day we’d be heading to spend time with elephants, something I’d been looking forward to for weeks!
Elephant Nature Park was recommended to us by literally every American we knew who’d been to Chiang Mai; it’s also highly rated on TripAdvisor as a great place to get up close to elephants without riding them. Our day began with an informational video on the way to the sanctuary about the mistreatment of elephants in Thailand and Asia, and while I knew that you weren’t really supposed to ride them I didn’t fully know why until the video explained things. Elephants are actually very gentle, smart and emotional creatures and excessive trekking and walking can easily injure them despite their large size. We also learned that elephants are often taken from the wild and their spirit is broken using incredibly harsh training techniques to make them more compliant to instruction. The video was informative yet depressing, but it’s nice to learn that there are places like Elephant Nature Park that take the time to inform tourists about elephant abuse and also spend large sums of money to rescue these gentle giants.
The whole day was amazing, we got to feed the elephants, bathe them in the river, see several of the baby elephants play and snuggle with their mamas and the best part was that in addition to the elephants there are over 300 dogs available for adoption! It’s too bad we don’t have a permanent home to go back to otherwise there were several pups that would have been on my list. During lunch at the elephant park Jeremy and I met two girls who’d just graduated from Indiana University, were both from Chicago, and we ended up hanging out and talking with them about their travels. Funny enough we ended up running into them twice more later back in Chiang Mai!
Jeremy woke up early the next day to watch the NBA finals and I got some much needed sleep after feeling under the weather the past few days. After the game we decided to have another day just wandering around the different temples in the city and scoping out souvenirs. One thing that has been hard for me on this trip is not collecting all sorts of little trinkets, museum maps/guides, scraps of paper, etc. We just don’t have enough room in our backpacks and every gram counts, in addition we did a major purge of our things before we left on the trip and don’t want to come back with a new collection of clutter that I promise to scrapbook and never do.
We were excited for Saturday night as Chiang Mai has a famous night market with a ton of great street food and handicrafts made by locals. We met up with two girls from Chicago we’d met in Cambodia about a month prior and walked around with them sampling the delicious Thai cuisine and looking through all the local crafts. We’ve been to a lot of street markets throughout Southeast Asia, but this one was particularly massive. It took us about an hour to mosey one way down the street, and there were a ton of sides streets filled with other stalls as well. After the market we decided to check out the crazy bar scene near our hotel and ended up at a great little reggae bar with a live band! It was a great way to end the night.
Sunday morning, we woke up earlier than we had been in order to head to Wat Doi Suthep, which is Chiang Mai’s most famous temple; as well as Bhubing Palace, the winter palace of the Thai royal family. To get there you have to wind your way up the nearby mountains, inducing a rather nauseating ride for both of us. Our first stop was Bhubing Palace, and even though you couldn’t really enter the family’s living quarters the gardens were absolutely gorgeous. The grounds were perfectly manicured and we loved that there was a great map showing you which way to go down the paths to be sure you don’t miss anything. I was a bit jealous that the Thai royal family basically gets to live in the middle of a botanic garden!
After touring Bhubing Palace, it was finally time to see the temple Chiang Mai is famous for, Wat Doi Suthep. It's located at the top of a hill and there are about a ton of stairs to climb first but at the top you're rewarded with one of the most beautiful temples you've ever seen and a great view. In my opinion, Thai temples have a lot of glitz and glam and Wat Doi Suthep was no different, tons of golden Buddha's and gems plastered throughout the temple.
Sunday evening, we decided to hit up another night market, which actually had a lot of the same vendors as the night before, but took place in a different location. There is a saying in Thailand we’ve come to love and say A LOT, “Same Same, But Different,” which definitely applied to the Saturday and Sunday night markets. After grabbing some food at the market we met up again with our new Chicago friends to check out the famous, Chiang Mai cabaret. For pretty cheap, you can see an amazing choreographed drag show in the middle of the night bazaar. At the last minute one of Jeremy’s old coworker’s Evan, who is traveling with his wife Melissa for a year, came and met us for the show as well! The show was a great mix of some old classics as well as newer pop songs and one of the poor guys seated in front got dragged into a ton of the songs, luckily he was a great sport!
After the show, we gathered the group and made our way back to the bar area we’d wandered upon the night before and ended up back at the reggae bar before the whole scene kind of shut down. As we were figuring out what to do next, we bumped into the two younger Chicago girls we’d met at the elephant sanctuary who invited us to head to another bar with them and a random Thai guy they met. I’m pretty sure they just wanted us to act as big siblings in case the guy was a creeper. But, he ended up being a nice guy and a good time was had by all until I realized it was almost 2am and dragged Jeremy home.
The next few days were spent in Pai (post to come) and we returned to Chiang Mai for two days before heading to Hong Kong. In that time, we picked up some souvenirs (since we’re nearing the homestretch of our trip), did some laundry, met up with Evan and Melissa for dinner and drinks and had our final meal in Thailand at a great vegetarian restaurant. After spending a total of almost six weeks in Thailand, we were really going to miss the tasty food, cheap prices and beautiful scenery. I hope that it’s a place we make it back to someday!