We skipped the usual backpacker’s first day in Bangkok and directly hopped on a plane to Chiang Mai. Bags and all, we packed into a tiny tuk-tuk that took us all the way to our hostel for 110 Thai Baht… yet another currency to get used to. However, this conversion was very much in our favor – the US dollar takes you a long way in Thailand.
Chiang Mai is super easy to navigate. In the center, you have the Old City which is surrounded by ancient walls and a square-shaped river-moat. Directions to everything are based on this square.
Hippie Hostel Street
We stayed in Divas 2 Guesthouse in a small backpacker’s street in the North East of the Old City. This area is super hippie and chilled-out with many hostels, guesthouses, coffee shops, and restaurants… but not many locals. “Authentic” or not, It was cool to feel like a part of a nomad culture here and meet up with so many like-minded world travelers. Chiang Mai in general seemed to invite travelers to coexist with locals in a very welcoming, peaceful, harmonious way.
A Delicious Welcome
After arriving and checking in, we were starved. Marcos, a German fellow traveler who was there in the front desk, invited us to join him for a quick street food dinner. Chiang Mai has an amazing strip of street food carts North of the Old City walls. That’s where we tried our first real Pad Thai, and the Thai cowgirl’s famous pork and rice. After a delicious meal, worth well over the 60 Baht it cost us (around $1.50 for BOTH plates), we spent the rest of the night chatting with other friendly travelers on the hostel rooftop.
Temples & Jazz
We woke up energized and ready for some sight-seeing. It was so. fucking. hot. But the blazing sun couldn’t keep us from wandering. There are amazing temples everywhere. They’re all so much more colorful than the temples and shrines we saw in Japan. Bright colored shimmering mosaics fill the white exterior walls and doors, while gold takes over most of the rooftops. On the outside of all these Wats you see a bunch of little garden-gnome-looking sculptures and mini shrines. Buddhist proverbs are also often displayed around the temple grounds. Behind or on the side of each temple, you can usually find either a huge Buddha sculpture or a large and impressive chedi (stupa).
That night we stumbled onto a bar that had people pouring out all the way to the street. It was Tuesday at the North Gate Jazz bar. Apparently, this place has live music every night, but the best night to go is on a Tuesday because musicians come from all over Thailand to jump in line for their chance to perform in a live jazz jam session. I felt like I was in a Thai version of New Orleans. We danced the night away with a group of hispanic girls who had just got back from their yoga-meditation retreat and a group of cool guys from Melbourne. What a great night.
More Temples, Kao Soi, and Zoe’s
We started our day, again with a mixture of coffee shop work time, and temple sight-seeing. Then, later on, we tried one of the most popular dishes from Northern Thailand: Kao Soi. Oh my. This dish. I could easily live off of JUST this dish for the rest of my days and be the happiest person. It’s a spicy creamy coconut curry that is nothing but heaven to your taste buds. I highly recommend trying it if you ever have the chance. That night we ended up in the popular night club dance strip right by our hostel. We made some new friends, Lukas and Dennis, who were both travelling alone and had just met. Soon we had surrounded ourselves with a fully international group of people (from Switzerland, Israel, England, France, Egypt, USA, and Spain) and together we partied around Zoe in Yellow (playing Backstreet Boys songs… what?), and Reggae Rock bar with live music. We ended the night in Club Spicy, one of the only few places that stays open after everything shuts down at midnight. It’s so easy to make new friends here.
Remember remember, the 5th of November…
During the day, we walked around, got some work done, and saw some markets with amazing fresh fruits and interesting Thai snacks. As we were sipping on some fresh fruit smoothies, we were baptized by a group of hippies we met on the street: “Ceci is now Luna, and Cristi is now Papaya” they said, welcome to Thailand.
Then, we met up with our new friend Lukas at the THC Rooftop Bar for drinks and dinner. Not really knowing where to go, we ended up back at the North Gate Jazz bar where we randomly met a group of mostly-Germans who would become one of our closest new friend groups of our trip. How it happened, I don’t know, but we ended up with about 20 people in a Thai taxi who drove us to a ladyboy bar because everything else was already closed. Then, when even that closed down, the night magically continued with beer we got from a hostel owner we met, and cards that I always keep in my purse (hey, you never know when you’ll need an extra deck for an improvised game of Kings right?!).
After a few moments of going back and forth on the idea… we were persuaded by Lukas to go visit the tigers in the nearby tiger sanctuary. We rented some motor bikes and carefully made our way over to Mae Rim. It’s tricky to know exactly how these people treat these beautiful but dangerous animals. They claim that they don’t sedate them, but it’s hard to be 100% sure.
When we arrived, a friendly tiger caretaker explained how to properly interact with the big cats, as they are kept with no chains and could accidentally hurt visitors by wanting to play. The caretaker explained that the tigers on average live three times as long in captivity as they would in the wild. They are domesticated and trained to be kind and gentle to humans from the moment they are born by being held often and pampered by the staff. Once he knew we were interested in learning a bit more about their training process, he introduced each tiger with his or her name and told little stories about their personalities and about them growing up. It made me happy to see that he really did have a close connection to these animals and that he really did seem to care about their wellbeing. He explained that they use small bamboo sticks and different sounds to help train them, and that they have some relatively large areas with pools of water to play in, even though he wishes they were even bigger. They also only allow tourists to interact with tigers that are 3 years or younger in age. Older tigers are too dangerous to keep so close to non-professional care-takers so they are taken to Meeting Conservation Center (80,000 Sq.M) where they can roam around in much larger spaces and they won’t be bothered by tourists. I left the sanctuary knowing a bit more about tigers, but still with a bit of doubt on whether or not keeping them in a place like this is really in their benefit.
That night we had our first ever Thai massages! For about $5 you can get an incredible 1 hour full-body massage, and after a long day of exploring, there’s nothing better!
I was researching where to see elephants ever since I knew I would be visiting Thailand way back in May, to try to find the most ethical place to meet these gentle giants. I know there are many places out there that mistreat elephants and abuse them in order to make some quick money, and I would never want to support that business. I also know that elephants that are completely free in the wild, have an extremely low life rate as they are often hunted down for ivory or killed by angry farmers after they’ve stomped over or eaten their crops. I’m happy to say I left Elephant Jungle Sanctuary without a single doubt that they do the best they can to take good care of these elephants and make sure they have long and happy lives.
We spent all day taking care of elephants. Feeding them, playing with them in the mud, and bathing them in a nearby stream. They are incredibly intelligent creatures who respond to their own names just like dogs. It was like a dream to spend those hours so close to these majestic dinosaur-like animals.
That night we went out “just for one drink” again with our new friends from the elephant tour, Ales and Tjasa. We went out to the Saturday Night Market and then to another Jazz bar called Mojo. Later that night we met a friendly local Thai girl, Natalie, who also has an identical twin sister. We also met some Spanish ladies, Blanca and Veronica, and French boys Lucas and Benji, who we would then travel to Pai with.
An Extra Night in Chiang Mai
We couldn’t help it… we had already been in Chiang Mai for a week, and it was time to see something new… but we stayed an extra day anyway because we loved it so much. We ended up in a new guesthouse that was a repurposed old wooden Thai house in a beautiful tucked away street. During the day, we met up with the Spanish girls, French guys, and a local guy named Bai and we up the mountains to the famous Wat Phrahat Doi Suthep in scooters.
That night, we went to check out the famous Sunday Night Market and got Thai foot massages on the street – ah the luxury! Later, we were re-united with the same crew of mostly-Germans from before who had been away trekking for 3 days and found a way to have yet another crazy night in Chiang Mai ending with drinks and toasties in front of a 7-Eleven….and I thought the North was supposed to be the relaxed and calm part of Thailand…?