Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, and for my money the best. Set at the base of the temple clad Doi Pui Suthep mountains, this city sprawls for miles, but it is the walled centre that embraces the art, culture, people and history that beguiles all comers.
We arrived at 5.00am ‘fresh’ off a night bus from Bangkok, the taxi drivers gathered and harassed as they always do, give yourself a little breathing space, wait for the buzz to die down and then settle on a reasonable price as we did. Luckily for us our hotel Lanna Boutique allowed us to check in at 5.30am which for any travellers used to waiting around for a 3pm check in will know, was absolute heaven. We showered, used the pool and ate breakfast all for zero cash.
Chiang Mai is a walking city, easy to navigate and there is a serenity in the air not usually associated with Thai cities. There is also plenty to do in Chiang Mai, more than enough to fill the four days we had there, small temples are nestled into every nook and cranny within the walls, there are mountain temples, night bazaars and plenty of little cafes to sit and watch the world go by in.
We spent a day with Janich and Sandie, a Danish couple we had hung out with in Bangkok, firstly heading to Grand Canyon, we were told of strange rock formations outside of the city where we could leap from varying heights into the waters below, sounds fun right?! Well all was not as it seemed, it’s actually a super tacky ‘water park’ if it can be called that, even further its actually just one jump from maybe 30ft, that you have to queue up for, and that you have to wear a life jacket for, what I’m saying is Grand Canyon sucks, don’t go there.
That night we took a taxi to the Thai Boxing stadium, drank beers, bet on children and men alike, tried to find some late night entertainment, but everywhere round here shuts down at midnight, at the time this broke our hearts, but in hindsight it keeps all the degenerates from heading up this way, so keep up the good work Chiang Mai.
We decided to spend our last two days on a trek into the hills a few hours north of Chiang Mai, and what a great choice it was. A small metal carriage picked us up at 8am, along with a couple of other European girls, we drove the few hours out, stopping en route for coffee (thank god), to an elephant Sanctuary. The new buzz term in Thai tourism is ‘no riding elephant sanctuary’, in response to the west’s condemnation of the Elephant cruelty that this age of information has exposed. And this place actually felt nice, the elephants roamed free, the handlers using gentle tugs of the ears to keep control of these giant creatures. For a few hours we fed, bathed and played in mud with two elephants, so strange to be this up close and personal with something us westerners rarely encounter other than in Zoos or David Attenborough programmes.
We left and were swiftly dropped by the side of a mountain road, our guide led us for a few hours up and down the hills, occasionally summiting to breaks in the trees and breathtaking scenery out over these wild peaks and weed green rice paddies. The heat of the day was broken with a dip in a beautiful waterfall that appeared almost from nowhere, then the final leg of the hike took us to an indigenous village of only 22.
Away from the neon glow of the big cities, this was a chance to peer into real life for these hill dwellers that have survived for generations, barring the addition of a few Premier League shirts, almost unchanged. The children played games of ‘lets dig a hole’ and as the night won its battle with the day the village shut down, no electricity round here to prolong the light. We sat by a campfire and gazed up into the heavens, occasional gunshots ringing out through the valleys as the men of the village hunted the next days food.
Our last day in Chiang Mai was spent hiking to another, this time bigger waterfall and then onwards to our accommodation to pack up and head further north.
Whether you have three months or three weeks in Thailand this is an absolute must visit city, if beaches are all that interest you then save yourself a fortune and go to Benidorm. If travel is what you seek then head up this way and lark about with some elephants.