Chiang Mai: “The Rose of the North”
We booked an afternoon train in Ayutthaya and prepared ourselves for the 10 hour ride to the city of Chiang Mai. Jojo was at the train station and after we hugged and said our goodbyes Tash and I headed outside into the damp, hot air to wait for our train to arrive.
Moments before the train pulled into the station we heard a familiar voice shout towards us. For the third time in a week Ronan (who me met in Kanchanaburi) was on the same mode of transportation as us. First a mini-bus where we met him, then a boat tour and now on a train. We joked that we would probably see him again someday on an airplane. Ronan was only riding for an hour though, to the town of Sukothai.
Despite being on a train for 10 straight hours, we remained comfortable with the aid of air conditioning. The journey was scenic, although much of the central valley of Thailand is very flat and reminded us of Cambodia. To our surprise lunch was provided on the train and I might have starved if I hadn’t felt adventurous. The food consisted of mackerel and rice.
Near 10pm our trip had ended and we wasted no time finding a cab to take us directly to our hotel. After arranging our hotel we were excited to reach our dinner location. Not because we were starving, but because we hadn’t ate authentic Mexican cuisine for months!
Following our dinner we ventured out to see the Sunday walking market. It was a beautiful market with all types of handicrafts. We had been to many markets but this one set itself apart with high quality and modern style crafts.
Blah, blog day
The next day we decided to be lame and we used the first half of the day to blog at a cafe. We did find some great street food for lunch and later that night we just walked around and observed what Chiang Mai had to offer.
Feeling guilty for not doing much the day before, we took full advantage the next day. Following breakfast we rented a scooter in order to venture out further. On the way to our first stop we were pulled into a police check point. The policeman asked for our paperwork and as we started to get it out he just told us to keep going. So far, we haven’t had any troubles with police in any country (knock on wood).
Our first stop was the unusual Wat Sri Suphan to see Thailand’s only temple made of silver. It was originally built in 1502 but starting in 2004 renovations were done using the skills of the local silversmiths. The roof is made up of silver-plated tiles and even the exterior walls are made of intricate beaten silver panels. This renovation has resulted in an astonishing appearance with almost every surface covered in silver.
Driving our scooter around a moat that encircles the old city we eventually headed out of town and climbed a huge hill. While on our way up to the famous Prathat Doi Suthep temple that looks over the city we stopped at to some beautiful panoramic views of Chiang Mai. It was also a great place to get some street food including crispy pork, grilled chicken and ice cream. We made plans to stop and eat on the way back down!
Before reaching the hill-top temple we pulled off at a small market. After wandering around for a few minutes we decided to check out a jade showroom that had caught our eye. As soon as we stepped foot inside the Jade Orchid showroom we were greeted by an English speaking hostess and she showed us a short video explaining about the different types and grades of jade. The showroom was large and had numerous varieties of jade jewelry and intricate figures. We learned that jade can come in all types of colors including black, white, orange, lavender, red and all shades of green. Before we left I bought a beautiful lavender jade ring for Tash as an early birthday present.
Wat Prathat Doi Suthep
From the Jade Orchid we had a short uphill walk to reach the entrance to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. Upon our arrival we were surprised to see how far up the temple sat on the hill and we proceeded to walk up the 309 steps to the top. The temple grounds were beautiful and first thing you notice is the shiny gold mounts towering above. Many locals were there to pay respects to the Buddha as well as many tourists. At the edges of the roof there were countless bells that hung as wind chimes. It was an extraordinary place to see, Tash and I stayed for quite some time just watching how the monks and others interacted at the temple.
On our way back down we saw hundreds of people involved in a clean-up of the road way. It created a lot of congestion but it was impressive to see how quickly they could work to clean miles of road at a time. We finally got back to our hotel for some rest and later that evening while doing some writing downstairs in the lobby, the hotel manager asked us if we wanted to eat some dinner with her and her family. Of course we said yes and felt honored that she would share some of her family’s meal with us.
We had kept in contact with Jolanda, who we met in Ayutthaya, and we all decided to do some ziplining. Jolanda has (or maybe had) a serious fear of heights, so she wanted to do this in order to push herself. We were picked up at the hotel in a mini-bus and whisked away toward the hilly jungle an hour outside of Chiang Mai. The ride seemed to take a long time and as we were close to our destination the road began to get very steep and windy. At this point the reality of what we were about to do set in. I guess I hadn’t given it much thought, but I quickly realized we were in for an adventure while staring at the canyons that connected the endless jungle.
After our arrival at Skyline Adventures, we were immediately escorted to where we put on our harnesses, helmets and received our safety demonstration. Before we knew it we were in the back of four wheel drive climbing up crazy hills and soon we started hiking into the jungle. Then…. the moment came. Jolanda had to jump off a platform 50 feet above the ground and trust in her gear. Surprisingly she wasted no time, jumped off the platform and zoomed down the line onto the next platform. A group of about ten of us and our two guides moved quickly from one tree to another.
The entire experience was really good. By the end of the day we had reached 42 platforms, completed 24 different ziplines, crossed many rickety suspension bridges and abseiled twice. For me, the abseiling made me the most nervous. The two drops were 90 and 150 feet and you basically just free fall until the last second, where the guides slowly drop you to the landing pad. The best part though were the three incredibly long ziplines; 1600 ft, 2000 ft and 3000 ft. That last one was over half of a mile!!
IMPORTANT NOTE: This elephant sanctuary does not endorse elephant riding or making the elephants perform tricks. We learned that elephants cannot carry much weight on their backs due to their spine structure. It is not built like the spine of a horse or cow and SHOULD NOT be used for carrying people around. Many of the elephants that have carried people around for most of their lives have severe back problems. Also, when training an elephant to carry people they literally beat the elephants until they submit, this can be for long periods of time. We did not know these things prior to our trip and we are glad that we learned about them. If you or anyone you know plan on doing any activities regarding elephants please take this knowledge into consideration and don’t perpetuate the problem.
Before we had arrived in Chiang Mai, Tash and I discussed what we should do while in northern Thailand. We decided that we should try some things that we hadn’t previously done in the rest of our travels. That is why we wanted to zipline and also why we visited an elephant sanctuary. We signed up for a half day trip with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary located about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. This time we were picked up in a taxi pickup and met some amazing new friends from California. We met one couple who are traveling the world for an entire year! (and I thought we were on a big trip).
Upon arriving we put on traditional Karen clothing, which helps the elephants feel more comfortable around new people.
Our first interaction with the elephants was feeding them bananas. Option A: Let the elephant take a banana with it’s trunk, option B: place banana into elephant’s mouth, and option C (not advised) let the elephant steal all bananas from behind your back.
After feeding them we just hung out for a while and interacted with them.
After feeding the elephants we walked down to where they like to roll around in the mud and guess what?… We did too and that’s the reason I didn’t take my camera. Afterwards we jumped in the nearby river and everybody rinsed off!
We opted to take the more expensive bus (which I think was $12 instead of $8) north to Chiang Rai. To our delight the extra money was definitely well-spent. The a/c worked good and there was plenty of leg room. We stared out the window of the bus as we continued along scenic mountain passes and windy roads. After about two hours of driving we finally ended up in Chiang Rai.
We got off the bus quickly because the driver basically parked in the middle of the road. After grabbing our bags in a hurry, we found ourselves next to a dusty parking lot surrounded by eager tuk-tuk and taxi drivers. We decided to try our luck on foot, mostly because I needed to find a bathroom asap, which didn’t work out so well. We walked around with our heavy luggage for about 15 minutes until I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I know what you are thinking, I didn’t pee my pants, although I might have been close. We found a restaurant and decided to order some food so I could use their facilities and of course, we ended up getting a tuk-tuk after lunch anyway. We found a great little hotel with some amazing owners.
Following a quick scooter rental from a company that delivers a bike to your doorstep, we headed off to see the Sunday night market. Hundreds of vendors made up the market by setting up their stalls right in the middle of a street. It was amazing how long it took to walk from one end of the market to the other. We didn’t buy much, but we did appreciate all of the sights and smells of the food.
The next day
Tash and I had been thinking about looking into tours that take you overnight into the hillsides of the mountains to see different villages. We stumbled upon some good advice and decided to check out the Chiang Rai Hilltribe Museum and Education Centre first. We spent a couple of hours (no photographs allowed) learning about the many tribes that live quietly in the mountains. Looking at the traditional clothes, tools and toys that belonged to each type of tribe and learning about the opium trade was an eye opening experience. We also learned that many tour companies do not respect the customs and traditions of the tribal people and to choose a tour carefully. One of these tribes are known as the Karen people, who are famous for their long necks adorned with gold rings.
Following our educational experience, we set out to see the…
Wat Rong Khun aka the White Temple is a must see destination when traveling in Northern Thailand. Not long ago Wat Rong Khun was in desperate need of a repair and when a local artist found out that there were not enough funds to restore the temple, he took it upon himself. All of the work has came from his vision and it is an ever growing project. This temple is the only all-white temple in Thailand and it is very beautiful as well as strange.
Doi Tung Royal Villa and Mae Fah Luang Gardens
We drove our scooter an hour north of Chiang Rai to visit the Royal Villa on Doi Tung mountain. The royal villa was originally built for the princess mother (now grandmother of the king) to live in during the summer. She was very influential in fighting against the opium trade and assisting the hilltribes in farming other types of crops. The villa is now a museum dedicated to showing the many accomplishments of the princess mother.
Below the royal villa is the beautiful Mae Fah Luang gardens.
Bye, bye Chiang Rai
Overall, we had a wonderful time and enjoyed what Chiang Rai had to offer. We had been told by a few people on our travels that Chiang Rai isn’t that great to visit. While I have to admit it doesn’t offer the typical tourist sights, it also has a more genuine feel. Spending a few days in Chiang Rai we definitely felt as though we got to experience a more local side of Thailand.