I LOVED CHIANGMAI. I’m writing this a little while after I normally write my postcards, and looking back that’s definitely the thing that springs to mind. I just loved it.
Cheap, friendly, safe and beautiful. I don’t know exactly what I expected, but this quaint little city went far beyond what I thought it’d be.
It’s a good thing we loved it so much, because it was a mission and a half to get there. It was supposed to be a simple sleeper train. You know. Go to sleep in Bangkok and BOOM next thing you know you’re in Chiangmai.
I’m afraid it didn’t quite work out.
The Sleepertrain Experience: Bangkok – Chiangmai
Not in the mood to repeat our train experience in Sri Lanka, we made sure to book a first class carriage well in advance. It was more expensive than second and third class of course, setting us back around £30 each. But given that we had a bed each in a compact but private booth, plus our own sink and someone to bring us dinner… yeah it was totally worth it.
After dinner, a cheap but surprisingly good meal of soup, veggies, rice, fruit and a chicken curry for Tom, the steward came around to make up the beds. I haven’t slept on a bunk bed since I was a child and the whole thing just seemed like a bit of an adventure.
We knew something wasn’t quite right when we were woken up from the noise of shouting, door slamming and general chaos. It was 6am- a couple of hours before we were due to arrive- but the train wasn’t moving.
Things became clearer when the train guard started working his way down the carriages. When he came to us, he thrusted a laminated sheet of paper with various scenario descriptions in Thai and their translations in English. Not dissimilar to the homework worksheets you’d get for school. He was pointing at a particular sentence “the train has de-railed” and then proceeded to explain that it wasn’t our train, but the train in front that had had an accident. Although we were safe, the train ahead was blocking the tracks.
So, bleary eyed and not-so-bushy tailed, we piled ourselves and our bags onto the thankfully air conditioned coach that was waiting outside. The remaining two hour stretch of our journey instead took around five hours. We arrived into Chiangmai stiff and tired just before midday. Luckily our tired irritableness was perfect for haggling with the taxi-man. I was not in the mood to be given tourist prices for the 10 minute ride to our hostel!
Thankfully, Chiangmai’s charm completely turned our mood around the moment we arrived.
Its atmosphere reminded me of Unawatuna in Sri Lanka. Bustling, without being busy, and touristy without being tacky. The main part of town is a small square surrounded by walls and a river. There’s cafes, bars and guesthouses galore and every street is laden with food vendors.
We spent our first afternoon just wandering around. The weekend walking market was really something special, thousands upon thousands of vendors selling clothes and trinkets, jewellery and lanterns. It was more handcrafty- much less about the designer rip offs that had been prevalent in Bangkok and the overall feel was much more enjoyable.
Dinner was veggie Pad Thai from a market stall, followed by a dessert of mango with coconut rice. I’m not the biggest fan of sweet rice, but Thai mango is delicious, I’ll happily eat it regardless of what else is on the plate!
The Big Day
The next day we got up bright and early. Our whole trip to Chiangmai had been organised around a trip to an elephant sanctuary, and finally that day had arrived.
I had done a lot of research into elephant sanctuaries in Asia. I wanted to make sure that we were being responsible. To make sure that the place we visited was actually a sanctuary, a place that cared for and loved their elephants. Riding and party tricks were an absolute no-no. It’s actually quite tricky; there are lots of places nowadays that market themselves as friendly, but behind-the-scenes they don’t actually treat their elephants well. They’re tapping into the fact that western tourists are becoming more aware of the unethical way that elephants are contained and that we don’t want to promote this by paying for rides and elephant paintings at the expense of maltreatment.
I used a charity website called EARS Asia to source exactly what we needed. Our day with the elephants at the Jungle Sanctuary involved meeting, feeding and bathing- no more. There was a preliminary talk where we learned about elephant care and then we were set loose to make friends with these giant, amazing animals.
The first time a 4 ton elephant comes towards you smelling the sugar cane in your pocket.. well, it’s quite something! But you soon learn that they’re calm and happy creatures who are very docile, unless provoked. You can sense their intelligence and after a while their individual personalities shine through too. The five month old baby was particularly playful!
It was one of the best experiences of my life. I kept stopping and thinking I was in a dream. It was just so surreal thinking here I am, playing in a river with a herd of elephants.
The tour guides were amazing, and the elephants do seem to love them very much. A day trip like this is an absolute must I’d say, for if ever you’re in this part of the world. Alternatively, if you have the time and you’re up for some hard work, most sanctuaries welcome voluntary help for at least a week at a time.
Doi Suthep National Park
Our last full day in Chiangmai, we got up early to go to the gym, before grabbing breakfast at one of the many amazing cafes down the road.
We then hired a motorbike (sorry mum!) and set off on a trip to Doi Suthep National Park and Waterfalls. It’s a beautiful ride, with wide roads that take you higher and higher up the mountains. Every now and then there’d be a clearance in the trees and you’d be rewarded with outstanding views of Chiangmai and the surrounding areas.
We stopped off for a trek around the waterfalls. It’s an incredible sight, to have all this gushing water on one side and then a birds-eye view of the city on the other side. It didn’t look quite safe enough for a swim, although we were both tempted!
We steadily worked our way up the mountain, stopping every now and then to take photos of the Buddhist temples that crop up out of nowhere. By the time we reached the small village at the top, the sun was going down and it was becoming a lot cooler. After a quick cup of coffee, we set off home as the sun dropped below the mountains.
It was dark by the time we got back inside the city walls, and we were hungry. We went to our favourite food vendor to have their spring rolls and noodle soup one last time before our flight into Laos the following day.