After running around Bangkok for a few days, we were ready to slow down a bit in Chiang Mai. With several friends having visited recently, and even one who had lived there for a few years, we were armed with plenty of recommendations for what we absolutely had to do, see, and eat. Our first day there was Valentine’s Day– not that it received that much attention in Thailand, which was actually something of a relief– and we “celebrated” with a tour we’d booked ahead of time. I was envisioning something on the order of a minibus filled with a handful of strangers, but what we ended up with was an SUV (with air conditioning! Holla!) and our very own tour guide, who was really knowledgeable and funny. He picked us up from our hotel a little before 9 in the morning, and we drove up to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, atop a mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai. It was really helpful to have the guide with us as we wandered around the grounds of the wat– he told us the story of the wat’s establishment and construction (an elephant walked all over the mountain and determined that this would be the site of the temple), gave us details about the rituals going on around us (walking around the central chedi three times while chanting, blessings from monks accompanied by strings tied around your wrist– I still have mine on), and mercifully had us take the tram up and the stairs down (stairs + humidity = no bueno, thanks). The wat, of course, was absolutely gorgeous.
The next stop on our tour (after a bit of driving) was an elephant ride. This was absolutely one of the highlights of the entire trip, and something that I was so excited about that I had trouble sleeping the night before. It was astounding enough to be so near an elephant at the Dusit Zoo in Bangkok, but nearly unbelievable that we would be permitted to ride one. With a mahout to steer and guide the elephant, we made our way back toward a little bamboo snack (for the elephant– it wasn’t people-lunchtime yet), then over a hill (where we met other tourists, one of whom commented that our elephant was “naughty.” He wasn’t! Just…spirited) and across a river back to where we’d started. Riding an elephant is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I’m so thrilled to have had, but I have to be honest: it was a little scary, too. There’s not exactly a safety belt up there, so the up- and downhill portions were a little harrowing, and I’m glad GP was willing to let me use his arm to brace myself in our seat.
Our next stop was lunch alongside the river we’d just forded on our elephant, where our guide had ordered an array of the most delicious Thai food for us, including rice, green papaya salad, and some fried fish and chicken. We sipped our Cokes, watched some bamboo rafts go by (more on this later), and had plenty of the “Is this real? Is this really happening?” conversation that so often accompanies our travels. From lunch, we drove to a Hill tribe village, where we got to watch a woman making scarves (of course,I bought one) and poke around a bit.
Having visited a temple, ridden an elephant, and met some of the local tribes-people, we were all ready to have a lazy (for us, probably less so for our raft-captain) float down a river on a bamboo raft. Something tells me it’s going to be hard for future Valentine’s Days to live up to this.
The finale of our day of touring was a trip to various sites in the Lost City, so called because it had been flooded by a river around the 11th century and remained largely hidden underground for generations. There are still things being discovered in the area, I’m sure, and we got to look at some pretty impressive ruins.
Having gotten a whirlwind tour of the outlying areas of Chiang Mai on our first day, we wanted to explore the Old City itself on our second day. Chiang Mai, though smaller than Bangkok, is home to almost as many wats– we visited several of them, including Wat Phra Singh (which we got to by hailing a taxi and having the following exchange with him: “Wat Phra Singh?” “Wat Phra Singh,” he replied. “Meter?” we asked, knowing that we would only ride in a cab that was willing to run its meter rather than bargaining for a price that would surely be higher. “Meter,” he agreed. Many of our taxi negotiations looked just like this), Wat Phantao, and Wat Chedi Luang. It was on this day of wat exploration that I learned a scary lesson in trying to befriend the medium-to-large-sized dogs that seemed to live at every wat (you will remember that I learned no such lessons with cats at Wat Arun); basically, I greeted several dogs that were sleeping in the shade of a parked truck, they were not excited to see me, and gave chase as I darted away, shrieking. Lesson learned. (Please note that the dog pictured below is not one of the mean, scary dogs. I left him alone, and he left me alone, so we’re cool.)
Having gotten our fill of the many wats of Chiang Mai, we headed back to our hotel, passing the walls of the Old City and pausing for a beer and some free wifi before we took in the sunset from the pool deck at our hotel.
With our last full day in the city, we took some time to explore the day market, which is housed in a huge building that was a short walk from our hotel (we’d been to the night market, which was more of an open-air affair, the night before). This market had just about everything, from carved wooden figurines to huge bags of saffron (that I’m kicking myself for not buying, but would customs have been ok with be toting them into America?) and row after row of clothing, snacks, fruit, and more dried fish than I’d ever seen in my life.
Our final night was occupied with one last spin through (another, nearby) night market, taken after we were positively eaten alive by mosquitoes while enjoying an outdoor dinner. (FYI, those insect-“repelling” incense coils don’t do a single thing to prevent bug bites.) With the last bargains we could grab (a couple wooden carvings of an elephant and a Buddha, as well as a couple bracelets for myself and my brother’s girlfriend), we made our way back to the hotel with Phuket on the books for the following day.
If you want to see all 296 Chiang Mai pictures (including way more elephant-riding photos and a picture of me unabashedly eating what amounts to a bowl of candy for breakfast), head on over to Flickr.