Chiang Mai was a necessary stop on my Thailand trip for a few different reasons:
- The northern territories are known for the elephant sanctuaries, and I (admittedly) chose my vacation destination based on the high likelihood of interacting with an elephant.
- I had heard that the food in Chiang Mai is some of the best you'll find in Thailand - how could I pass that up?
- It's said that traditional Thai cultures are most prominent in the lesser-touristy northern provinces, and having a cultural experience was extremely important to me.
So after spending three incredible days in Bangkok, we hopped on a plane for a quick trip (that cost us $54!) to Thailand's cultural, elephant-inhabited north.
Our Chiang Mai experience started with a cultural immersion as we arranged a day trip to explore the hill tribes outside the city. Still very much ingrained in their own traditions and cultures - each hill tribe is vastly different from one to the next - we were able to get a glimpse of what rural life is like in Thailand. The village of stilted shacks and narrow cobblestone roads sat in the clouds, surrounded by vivid green forests and decorated with blooming flowers. Northern Thailand is also known for growing and exporting coffee, so cafes selling brews and beans were sprinkled between trinket shops and clothing stores.
Knowing we were tourists, little kids hung out around the local gardens dressed in traditional hill tribe clothing and were camera-ready, knowing they would earn a few baht for taking a photo with the tourists passing through. Call me a sucker, but these kids were way too cute to not take a photo! Just look at those toothy grins.
After leaving the village, we visited a nearby temple where we ascended stairs that could seemingly carry us into the clouds, but instead dropped us on the doorstep of Doi Suthep. The temple is not only decked out in gold and intricate designs, but also has a pretty killer view of the city from above. It's here that we really immersed ourselves in the culture by participating in the clockwise walk around the temple's center - it's said that those who walk clockwise around the temple three times will be granted good luck. At the end of our three rounds, we dropped an offering of lotus flowers and lit a candle - the flower to represent the aspiration to achieve the body of the Buddha, and the candle to represent the light of wisdom in the darkness.
Our cultural experience continued for dinner where we took a local's recommendation to try the traditional northern dish of chicken with green curry and noodles. We also, somewhat accidentally ordered bamboo worms as a side - though I assumed, "I've tried a scorpion, I can definitely try some of these little worms." And you know what? Not bad.
The following day, we headed to Elephant Nature Park. I was so beyond excited for this day - I had chosen to visit Thailand for the purpose of interacting with elephants. And it was happening!
Now - before I proceed - I want everyone to know about the immense importance of researching Elephant excursions before participating in them. Many "sanctuaries" are unethical and frankly unimaginable - where the elephants are forced to live in chains and/or give rides to humans, and they often are abused with bullhooks and other forms of physical force. Please, PLEASE do thorough research to ensure you're spending your time and money somewhere where these intelligent creatures are treated as they should be! Elephant Nature Park was absolutely incredible, and extremely responsible in the way they treat their rescued and adopted elephants.
At Elephant Nature Park, our small group of six was partnered up with a group of four older female elephants for the day - I particularly bonded with Happy, who always seemed to be meandering a little behind the rest of the pack, and was a little less grabby with the bananas than the others. She was over 70 years old and had lost all her teeth, so when she ate her watermelon, she would mush out the fruit and spit out the rind. I'm sure for her, I was more of a source of food for the day than anything; but to me, she was a lifelong dream come true.
After a jungle walk and countless bananas and watermelons, we ended our day with bath time in the river (and even more watermelons). The one souvenir I purchased for myself on my trip was a wooden figurine of Happy, carved by her handler, complete with her stubby tail and upturned trunk. It was the perfect trinket to remember the perfect day.
We spent our final day on a motorbike, exploring the rest of Chiang Mai. I must say, jetting around on a motor bike around was a little terrifying - and I was on the back the whole time! We did spill once, but no one was hurt and the bike was also fine. Once we started to get the hang of it, zipping through Chiang Mai's narrow, crooked streets became a blast, and it was such a great way to spend our last day.
After spending four days in Chiang Mai, I was on cloud nine. I almost couldn't believe we still had another part of the trip to look forward to, where we'd be lounging on white sand beaches and drinking from coconuts. I'll write all about that soon, but in the meantime, check out more photos from Chiang Mai here!