One trip to Chiang Mai just wasn’t enough, so following my trips to Pai and Sukhothai I returned to the education capital of Thailand for a few more days. As I’d only spent three days in Chiang Mai on my first trip there were clearly more things I wanted to do whilst there, namely cooking classes, visiting an elephant camp (watch the video below), and tour a bit more around the Old City within the ancient surrounding walls.
Chiang Mai is a bit of an oddity when it comes to its organization as it is the first city in Thailand I’ve visited that was set up using the all-too-common grid system we’re used to back home. The Old City of Chiang Mai is special, though, as only part of the town is organized in this fashion dating back to when the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na (1296 - 1768) , and it was setup within a moated square-shaped wall surrounding the main temples of the time.
This trip back to Chiang Mai also gave me the chance to meet up with friends from back home for the first time since I’d been in Asia, and I was excited to spend the next two weeks traveling with them through Thailand. We met up the day after I arrived back in town and had completed the Samoeng Loop (picture above) up into the mountains west of the city. This was a seriously beautiful ride up into the hills and villages away from the main city, and I was glad to have a day to spend just cruising around and exploring the area.
We spent the better part of our first day together just touring around, taking in the sights, and visiting some of the numerous temples in the old city. This was both Beth and Kathleen’s first time to Asia so it was exciting for me to watch them take in the sights and sounds of a new city (they’d just spent a day in Bangkok so had gotten over the culture shock by this point a bit).
As I’d been in Thailand for quite some time at this point I was capable of speaking a little Thai which I found most useful at the markets in town where prices are ALWAYS negotiable. Our first evening out we managed to find our way to the Anusarn Night Market in town and spent the night roaming through the numerous stands of trinkets, food, clothing, souvenirs, and everything in between. We were approached numerous times to attend a Caberet show (just Google Thailand Caberet shows and you’ll see why this was amusing) and Ping Pong shows (NSFW - please don’t Google this one and just trust me that it’s not what it sounds like), but ultimately decided to spend our night wandering, eating, and shopping around for several hours. I’ve found it quite easy to spend nights just roaming through the markets even though I’ve seen everything they could possibly offer me at this point, yet somehow I always manage to buy something.
The following day we woke early to get picked up for our day spent at the Elephant Nature Park, a pre-booked day of fun we’d all been looking forward to for some time. Many of the elephant camps you can visit in Southeast Asia are extremely unethical and one should take caution when booking tours or visits to many of these parks. Several are known to physically abuse or torture the elephants as babies that they use for tourism in order for them to be more submissive toward humans hoping to ride on their backs someday. We chose the more humane route and booked with ENP due to their policies on what types of elephants they house (rescued elephants from logging and tourist industries who’ve been abused earlier in life).
Our day at ENP was absolutely amazing and you can watch the entire video of the day linked on the left at your leisure. We spent the first part of the day feeding a few of the elephants and spending time with them during their subsequent feeding (this will become a trend) about thirty minutes later. After lunch we spent a bit of time bathing the elephants in the nearby river and scrubbing off the dirt from their back which within twenty minutes of finishing their bath they’d already put back on their backs for some protection from the sun. This was followed quickly by another feeding, and our day ended by walking around some of the grounds and watching some of the young elephants play with their elderly campmates. Though we didn’t ride the elephants, which many of the abusive camps allow unknowing tourists to do, we had an incredible day spending time at the camp and learning about their previous lives as workers and current lives as happy and nearly healthy retired animals.
Chiang Mai is also known for its cooking classes for tourists who wish to learn how to make the popular and delicious dishes of Thailand. I am a total food lover, and the prospect of learning a few new dishes to take back home to impress my friends with was all I needed to book this $25 course. We were picked up from our hostel in the morning and taken to a local Thai food market to learn about the ingredients we’d be using later on in the day while cooking our six different dishes. We learned all about the different vegetables, variations of spices herbs, and types of meats we’d add to our food, and we also saw many of the locals carrying out their traditional market activities with one another.
After our market visit we headed to the cooking school and spent the better part of five hours cooking up six different Thai dishes. Some of my favorites such as green curry and fried noodles were cooked up as well as some dishes I’d not yet tried such as papaya salad (caution: spicy) and black rice pudding with fried coconut (caution: DELICIOUS). We were given a cook book of all the variations of the dishes we were able to choose from (24) that we could take home, and I’ll be dipping into that frequently upon my return.
Our final day in Chiang Mai was spent visiting Wat Doi Suthep, a beautiful mountain temple about forty-five minutes drive from the city center. Once at the top we were treated with foggy views below of Chiang Mai and some pagodas unlike any I’d seen yet. Many of the pagodas and temples start to become repetitive after a while, but these were brilliantly decorated with gold and stood high above all of the surrounding building at the still functioning monastery.
Following our visit to Doi Suthep we made our way back down the mountain (with a brief stop at a non-existent, but labeled, waterfall) to Chiang Mai. Our afternoon was spent at the “Grand Canyon” of Chiang Mai where we were able to enjoy some cliff jumping and a few beers in the now-flooded former excavation site that has become a very popular destination among backpackers. It was a warm and sunny afternoon and a nice change from the noisy and busy city of Chiang Mai, and it gave us a bit of time to work on our tans before heading down to the islands the following day.
Once again I returned to Chiang Mai, this time with my parents who after visiting Koh Samui over Christmas were ready for a bit of time away from the islands experiencing a bit more normal Thai life. We decided to spend our first of three days exploring around the city a bit, and as I’ve been here before I was designated tour guide for the day. I made sure that following our afternoon walking around the city we made our way to the Sunday Night Market, a famous Chiang Mai event taking place every week…on Sundays obviously.
The Night Market is PACKED with tourists, and this time especially around the holidays was an extreme example of how over tourised Thailand has truly become. There were thousands of people cramming the streets, swerving in every direction not giving a care about who or what they bumped into along the way in order to secure their souvenir which could have been bought for the same price three stalls down the street.
This is one of many examples that have slowly begun to turn me off to Thailand as a whole. The country has become unbelievably polluted with tourists and the people of Thailand have become unbelievably accustomed to the concept of bargain selling and ripping off gullible tourists. I have to understand that Thailand has slowly been approaching the limit of healthy tourism, but it seems to me that that threshold has come and gone, and this country (or at least the most common stops on the tourist route) have become obsolete in the grand scheme of authentic Thai life.
The remaining days in Chiang Mai with my parents were spent visiting another elephant park, touring through the shops of the ever famous Thai silk industry, and eating out at some amazing Thai restaurants. Food is a major part of the Thai culture and their food is never lacking in robust flavors, substance, or enough spice to fully blow your face off.
Following Chiang Mai we made our way to Bangkok in order to cap off the last bit of my parent's visit to Thailand. I’ll save all the details of Bangkok for another post though as this ultimately was the second of four total trips I’ll end up making to Bangkok, each time visiting a different part of the city and getting a bit better understanding of the largest city in this part of the world and the central hub of Southeast Asia.