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Travel Guide: Chiang Mai x2

After time in Hanoi and Sapa, my sister and I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand on New Year’s Eve. I was excited to be back as soon as we landed.

We dropped our bags and headed straight for Sunday Walking Street, one of Chiang Mai’s many night markets. It sells food, clothing, art, home decor, and just about anything else that one might need or desire. For those who love to shop, there’s a regular night market and a Saturday Walking Street, too.

It was busier than usual because of New Year’s Eve so we ducked out for dinner once the crowds became unpleasant. Once it was dark, we joined groups of locals and tourists setting off paper lanterns along the river, just inside the walls that cordon off central Chiang Mai from the rest of the city. (I’d love to go to the Lantern Festival one day.) Encouraged by a friendly Thai man, we scribbled messages on our lantern before finding someone with a candle who helped us light it. With his help, we held the lantern to the ground until he decided, seemingly arbitrarily, that it was ready to hold itself up in the sky. We let go and watched the lantern float up and over the river, following hundreds of others. Such a cool way to send off positive wishes for a new year.

A few hours later, we rang in 2018 from Zoe in Yellow, a Chiang Mai club that absorbed the parties from every bar on its street. Security and bartenders were kind enough to look the other way as all patrons wandered from bar to bar, dancing wherever the best song was playing.

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On New Year’s Day, we visited one of several massage centers in Chiang Mai where female ex-convicts are trained in the art of massage. Thai massage is very different from any massage that I’ve had (and I don’t always like being touched, so massages are infrequent) and I really enjoyed it. You’re fully dressed and the masseuse is right up on the bed with you, using her entire body to pull, twist, and stretch yours. She was contorted into as many positions as I was throughout the process. It was a new physical experience for me and a lovely way to spend an hour.

We spent the afternoon wandering around, the streets blissfully empty this time, and found some really lovely street art that basically exemplifies why I love Chiang Mai so much. It’s a small town with so much personality and so much good will. Really delicious cafés and coffee shops, too! We visited at least one every afternoon. Chiang Mai is laid-back, calm, and friendly, all of which were greatly appreciated after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

We also saw some of Chiang Mai’s many temples. They’re ornate, colorful, incredibly detailed, and very impressive. They can also get a little tiring and all start to look the same after a while. Since Chiang Mai has so many, though, one way of getting to know the city is by going from temple to temple and creating a mental map. That’s what I did the first time I was there and I was surprised at how much I remembered.

Visiting temples at night, however, was a new experience and a very different one. What is beautiful in the light can take on a very eerie, creepy quality in the dark. That was only enhanced by the man riding his bike in circles whispering, “Beautiful . . .” over and over.

We actually spent most of our time in Chiang Mai out of town and in the wider province. On our second full day we went on an excursion to Phuping Palace, the royal family’s holiday home, and Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple. We were far more interested in the latter but I’m glad we saw the palace, too. We weren’t allowed inside but the gardens were lovely!

If you’re planning to go, one word of caution. Just like the Grand Palace in Bangkok, there’s a dress code that is more strict than the regular temple dress code. For men, it’s long pants (no shorts, even if they cover the knee) and a shirt that covers the shoulders. For women, it’s a skirt or long pants (no leggings, though fine in a temple) and a shirt that covers the shoulders (no scarves for this part, though that’s fine in a temple). Luckily, there are clothes to buy or rent if you’re in a bind.

After some time at Phuping Palace and a short drive, we reached Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and walked up 306 steps to reach it. Like every temple that we visited in and around Chiang Mai, this one was full of monks and worshippers giving offerings and saying prayers in the hope of a prosperous new year. Doi Suthep is actually the name of the mountain on which the temple is located and there were really beautiful views of the city from the summit. It was a cloudy day so I’ll keep those pictures to myself because they really don’t do it justice.

The primary reason I had wanted my sister to visit Chiang Mai was because of Elephant Nature Park. That’s what first brought me to Chiang Mai a couple years ago and I could not wait to share it with my sister. ENP is a rescue center for elephants previously in captivity from logging operations, circus performances, or as tourist attractions on city streets. ENP also has an expansive dog rescue program with its own set of volunteers. There are other animals living there, too, like cats and water buffalo. At ENP, no one rides the elephants. You feed them, learn about their individual personalities and life stories, bathe them when it’s warm enough (it is in September but some were wearing jackets in January!), and touch them if they’ll let you. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful animals and I was so glad to be back.

We spent our last day in Chiang Mai up in the mountains. We headed to Doi Inthanon National Park, which is part of the Himalayas and home to the highest mountain in Thailand that gives the park its name. The climate of Doi Inthanon is always chilly, hovering around 10ºC or 50ºF during the day, and I was glad for my jacket.

After about two hours of driving, we stopped at Wachirathan Waterfall. I grew up in upstate New York and spent summers camping in Letchworth State Park and this waterfall reminded me a little bit of home. I loved climbing down on the rocks to get as close to the spray as possible. We used to stand in the gorges trying to catch whatever fish darted around in there. We called them crayfish, but I’m not sure that’s what they were.

After some time at the waterfall, we took a quick drive to Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail, the real reason we’d come to Doi Inthanon. We hiked for two hours through the cloud forest, which was really neat because we’d visited Singapore’s Cloud Forest in Gardens by the Bay two weeks earlier and here we were in a real one! Normally, the guide told us, there’s a stunning view of the mountain range and nearby temples from the summit. The day we were there, however, was an anomaly. We could see . . . nothing.

Knowing what I was missing because of a photo from the guidebook, I was initially disappointed. And then I started paying attention to everything I could see and my emotional response, attitude, and interpretation of the experience completely changed. I started looking around and found myself feeling calm and peaceful. I felt wrapped up in mist from the clouds, hugged by everything around me. Only being able to see a few meters in any direction forced me to focus more deeply than I often do when I’m outside and there’s so much to see. With less distraction, it was easier to experience beauty and serenity in everything that there was.

While I could have happily spent many more hours hiking in the mountains, we followed the guide to the burial site of the ancient Lanna kings. As everywhere in Thailand, there were people praying and leaving offerings, which I always like to see. Religious devotion is always interesting to me because I grew up understanding it so completely. My thoughts have changed a lot since then.

Another major attraction of Doi Inthanon National Park are the pagodas dedicated to the king and queen. Normally, you can see them from the top of the mountain but we had the additional surprise of not being able to see them at all because of the fog. The guide shrugged and told us to wander around the gardens, which we did. It’s still amusing to watch monks taking selfies, especially when there’s nothing to see. As we wandered, though, the sun broke through the clouds and the fog cleared for just long enough to allow us to see what we’d come to see.

The King Pagoda was surrounded by really beautiful scenes of the life of the Buddha and was absolutely empty inside, which is unusual. I really liked the brown and gray with hints of purple, which is also unusual. Temples are so pretty when they’re simple.

The Queen Pagoda was decorated with purple mosaics. This I had never seen and this I loved. This queen loved purple, the guide told us. So do I.

After some time at the pagodas, we went to a nearby market just for a quick look. Though my sister and I told each other we weren’t hungry, we used that quick look to buy a cup of strawberries and another cup of gooseberries!

According to the guide, the last stop with this particular tour is usually the Sirithan Waterfall. Though smaller and initially less impressive than the first, I enjoyed listening to the water.

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However, since so many people in our group had asked about local livelihoods, he took us to a village that grows rice in the summer and coffee throughout the year!

Our visit to Doi Inthanon was such a great day and it was a little difficult to know that our trip was at an end. But it was such a wonderful way to say goodbye to a place I really love. Here’s to hoping I’ll be back soon!

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Travel Guide: Chiang Mai

Thanks to Singapore’s elections on Friday, we had a three-day weekend! I hadn’t been out of Singapore since arriving at the end of July, which means I’d been in the same city for about seven weeks. When’s the last time that happened? The haze coming up to Singapore from Indonesia meant, and continues to mean, that we haven’t seen the sun in a couple weeks (and can hardly see clearly at all, for that matter), the kids have been cooped up inside during break times in a space not large enough to accommodate all of them, the air constantly smells like something’s burning (because it is . . . thanks, Indonesian palm oil companies . . .), and just breathing has become a chore. All in all, a great weekend to get out of Singapore.

Before I left Malaysia, I knew I wanted to visit Chiang Mai. Mitch and I had a whirlwind of a weekend in Bangkok about a year ago (here is the blog post about that) and I haven’t made it back to Thailand since. This weekend’s visit to Chiang Mai, because of the day off on Friday, gave me ample time to explore not only the city, but also an elephant reserve nearby. The 400 photos I took on this trip (no kidding) basically fall into two categories: temples and elephants. I have done my best to sift through the photos and I’ve tried really hard not to saturate this blog post with too many images of the same thing. Enjoy! And if you want more pictures, let me know. I have them.

Firstly, orientation. Chiang Mai is located in northern Thailand, which means there was sun, clean air, and mountains. The old city is surrounded by a moat (Chiang Mai dates to the 12th century) and there’s access through a couple gates.

The main gate into/out of the old city of Chiang Mai
The main gate into/out of the old city of Chiang Mai

Much of Chiang Mai is made up of clusters of multi-story buildings with businesses on the bottom and who knows what on the upper floors. More than a few were brightly colored, like these:

Colorful buildings 1 Colorful buildings 2

I also spotted a few examples of colorful graffiti. It amuses me that there are words presumably written in English, but I still can’t read them. This is also the case with graffiti that I’ve seen and photographed in English-speaking countries, so I suppose it isn’t a surprise.

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The shrines that dot Chiang Mai were no less colorful. In every city I’ve been to in Asia, it’s normal to find shrines outside, inside, on street corners, in parking lots, inside business, near homes. I loved the motorcycle parked right next to this one:

Shrine on the street

After dropping my trusty purple duffel bag at the hotel (since I was traveling alone, I figured I’d treat myself), my first stop was just down the street to the Lanna Folklife Museum, where I learned about the Lanna kingdom of ancient Thailand and their distinct culture. It took me about an hour to go through the whole thing, and I highly recommend it for a historical overview, especially if you’re unfamiliar with Buddhism.

I took a picture of exactly one artifact at the museum:

How cool is this?!
How cool is this?!

Just across the street is the Three Kings Monument, which I could see from my hotel.

Three Kings Monument

After getting my bearings (and getting slightly lost on the way) I began my tour of Chiang Mai’s temples. For the most part, I have no idea which of the dozens of temples I saw. It doesn’t matter because they’re all just names to me. I went inside many of them, leaving my shoes with the others at the entrance. Thailand is understandably strict about respectful attire when entering temples (explicit signs indicate in many languages and many pictures indicate what is and is not acceptable). There’s often nothing to borrow from friendly devotees at the entrance because the temples are simply open to the public for prayer. I have a few dresses and skirts that cover my knees; I keep a light scarf for my shoulders in my bag at all times when traveling in Asia. You never know when it will come in handy!

The gallery of photos below comes from two days of walking through Chiang Mai and popping in and out of temples. I did a lot more of this than I think I would have if I were traveling with a buddy. But since I wasn’t, I did a lot of meandering (read: getting lost) and meandering means finding temples.

Just a quick comment on the temple in the photos below. I’ve seen a lot of temples in my travels, but never one made of wood. It honestly reminded me more of Norway’s stave churches than of a Buddhist temple.

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And to compare, here’s a stave church in Norway:

Not a temple! A stave church!
Not a temple! A stave church!

I tend to write a lot when I spend time alone, and time alone while traveling is no exception. I also pause for more tea and coffee breaks than I would otherwise, perhaps because I spend less time lingering over meals. In Chiang Mai, though, my break beverage alternated between iced coffee and Thai iced tea, which is quite possibly the most delicious of beverages.

Case in point.
Case in point.

Based on a recommendation from a friend, I chose Elephant Nature Park for Saturday’s all-day trip to visit elephants. The park is a reserve for 70+ elephants who range in age from babies to about 80 years old. Some of the elephants were brought to the park when they got too old to work or when industries using them were shut down, but most of them were rescued from logging operations, circuses, and street performances. Our guide, Pur, told us about each of the elephants that we met. She was incredibly knowledgeable about each elephant’s story as well as how its current family group formed. It is amazing how elephants, much like people, form families.

While most of the day was devoted to watching them interact, we got to feed and bathe the elephants, too! Pur allowed us to pet some of the gentle giants but kept us away from the ones the she called “not nice.” Every so often, the elephants would get upset or agitated and the mahouts (handlers) would shout at the visitors to get out of the way. Over the course of the day, Pur also told us about the various injuries and abuses that many have endured. More than a few elephants were blind and had misshaped or deformed limbs from stepping on landmines. There was also a gallery at the reserve devoted to photos of elephants before and after surgery and rehabilitation.

In addition to elephants, Elephant Nature Park is also home to over 400 dogs and cats, many of which are up for adoption. Most of the dogs, at least, were strays in Bangkok once upon a time. They followed the elephants around as they pleased and were constantly looking for love from visitors. The park itself is staffed by about 200 people; this week, about 70 of those were volunteers. It was a wonderful day, complete with transit to and from the park and a delicious vegetarian lunch. I can’t say enough good things about supporting this organization.

And then there’s the fact that Elephant Nature Park is simply beautiful. It was a marvelous change of pace (and air quality) from hazy Singapore.

One of my favorite parts of traveling is meeting people. I’m still in touch with someone Mitch and I met in Langkawi about a year ago. That was our very first Southeast Asian trip!

People tend to meet through shared experiences, and Elephant Nature Park was no exception. Two girls and I made plans to meet up to visit the Night Bazar and go for dinner. We ate at a food court, which was cheap and delicious. While there, I couldn’t help but notice the sign below, which reminded me that the world has a long way to go. Travellers with disabilities will most certainly encounter difficulties when visiting Asia.

Upside: They have recognized that people in wheelchairs go out in public. Downside: Sigh. We're getting there.
Upside: They have recognized that people in wheelchairs go out in public.
Downside: Sigh. We’re getting there.

After the Night Bazar, when we were done looking through the regular tourist trap kitsch that feature at many markets, we went out to a very chill rooftop bar with a rasta vibe. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant when I heard about it, but the decor clarified very succinctly.

Please don't be surprised at the name. Asia doesn't do subtlety very well.
Please don’t be surprised at the name. Asia doesn’t do subtlety very well.

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The highlight of Sunday, my last day in Chiang Mai, was a river cruise along the Ping River. It was a dreary day but the wonderful people of the Scorpion Tailed River Cruise (basically the Sam Patch of Chiang Mai!) were very gracious and gave me a private tour! The ancient Thai man who acted as the tour guide is also, I suspect, the owner of the entire operation. Part of the tour included time off the boat to taste tropical fruits and smell local herbs in his garden. The experience was expensive by Thai standards but a really nice way to learn about Chiang Mai’s history from (literally) a very different angle.

River travel used to be the way people got around. That has changed, but there are no metered taxis in Chiang Mai. The best way to get from point A to point B without a private car is by a red sorng-tau-oo, basically a shared taxi, or tuk tuk, a private taxi.

Tuk tuk

Thanks, Chiang Mai! Thailand, see you again in a month!