My arrival in Chiang Mai didn’t exactly fill me with positivity, but I could not have been more wrong about the place. First off, I chose to take the shuttle bus for 40 baht rather than a taxi for 300. This is a shared mini bus service, which will only leave once ten people are on board. When I bought my ticket and this was explained to me, the woman said we were just waiting on two more after me, and as I was paying two guys also came up to buy tickets. This was clearly a lie though, and we then had to wait around 45 mins for enough people to get going. The airport is only a 15 minute drive from the old city so this was slightly frustrating.
So by the time I arrived at my hostel it was last afternoon. My first impression of Mojito Garden also wasn’t great. It felt an awful lot like camping. A series of bungalows, which were basically garden sheds, surround a kind of central relaxing area and there is a separate toilet and shower block. It’s super basic, but I guess you get what you pay for. The weird thing was how deserted it was and that the few people that I did try to make conversation with were very antisocial – strange for a hostel.
Not to be put off though, I left my things and headed out to the Sunday Walking Street. The old city of Chiang Mai is relatively compact and the one good thing about Mojito Garden is that it is very central, meaning most things are within a 5-10 minute walk. Every Sunday, the main streets of the old city become a sprawling market place. As the late afternoon sun slowly began to set, I spent a leisurely couple of hours browsing the stalls, picking up wee bits of street food here and there, listening to some of the surprisingly good live music (and some of the less good), shopping, and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. Even just after this short time I was already in love with Chiang Mai, and it was such a nice change to being in a big city.
I’d been hoping some more people may have been around when I returned to the hostel, but it was still deserted. Equally the staff were not in the least bit helpful, and when I enquired on how to get to Doi Suthep, they hardly even knew what I was talking about. The following morning it was still dead, and the staff were equally as unresponsive. A free breakfast was supposed to be served between 8 and 11, but at 8:15 there was still no sign of anyone. Eventually someone stumbled bleary eyed through the garden, and when I asked about breakfast he seemed surprised and said he could do it in 10 minutes. I have to say though, what I got was pretty damn good so that kind of made up for it.
My plan for the day was to visit the temple at Doi Suthep and then hopefully do some walking up in the mountains. The cheapest way to get up there is by Songthaew, which cost 50 baht per person and leave just across the road from the North Gate. It’s the same kind of system as the airport minibus, in that you need to have 10 people for it to go. When I got there, a group of three Canadians were also waiting so I got chatting to them. After a while another woman joined, and the driver said if we paid 100 each we could go now. Not wanting to waste the day and it still being extremely cheap, we went with that option. The drive up the mountain takes about 40 minutes, and in the back of a truck I imagine the windy road may not be for everyone!
Wat Doi Suthep sits at the top of the most ornate 309 steps I have ever climbed, flanked on either side by beautiful green and gold dragons. Once inside, the temple itself is stunning, a gold beacon shining on top of the mountain. It doesn’t even feel that much like a tourist attraction as it is a working temple, and the majority of people actually seemed to be there to worship. We each took part in some Kau Cim fortune telling which was pretty cool.
After the temple, the Canadians wanted to go out to a hill tribe village where they grew coffee. It was about 6km up the mountain, so we hitched another lift on a songthaew and figured we would walk back from there. In the village itself there wasn’t a huge amount to see, though it was still interesting and there was a gorgeous flower garden and small waterfall which could be visited for 10 baht. After that we grabbed some lunch in a small cafe and tried some of their locally grown coffee, which really was delicious.
Although the walk back to the bottom of the temple was along the road, it was quiet enough for it to still be enjoyable. We got there just in time to catch one of the last songthaew back down, and got out at Chiang Main University to go to a temple around there. Every Monday to Friday from 5-7pm, the Wat Suan Dok runs something called Monk Chat. It’s an open session where anyone can go in, sit with the monks and learn about Buddhism. I had mentioned it to the Canadians that morning and they were also interested, and I’m so glad we went. It was such an open, honest, and fascinating two hours, and felt more like a lesson in philosophy than religion. From there I dragged the poor guys the last 2km home, and safe to say when we got back we were all pretty exhausted, but what an amazing day.
Day 2 in Chiang Mai was one that I’d been looking forward to for a long time – spending the day at the Elephant Nature Park looking after rescued elephants. They take in animals which have been abused, such as elephants used for tourism, illegal logging, or forced breeding, and rehabilitate and look after them. It’s one of the only places in Thailand to do so in actual humane conditions, so if you want to see elephants when you’re here, this is the way to do it. I was picked up from my hostel and my group was made up of another 6 people, plus our guide for the day Sai, who was fantastic. When we arrived they provided tea and coffee while telling us what the day would involve, and then our first thing was feeding time. There were many groups there, and as an elephant wandered each group got to feed one. After an entire basket of fruit and veg, which to her was probably just a light snack, she had had enough.
We then got to walk around the park and meet the different ‘families’. The elephants themselves choose their companions and then generally stick together, so there were mostly groups of two or three, but a few who were either newer and hadn’t made friends yet or were simply more solitary and preferred spending most of their time by themselves. After that it was time for lunch, which was one of the best meals I’ve had here. It was all vegan Thai food, with a massive hot and cold buffet to choose from. After lunch, everyone headed down to the river to see some of the proper families, the ones with babies. For this we had to keep our distance as the mother and the nanny in particular are very protective of the baby, and the herd as a whole keep it surrounded a lot of the time when they are walking. But we got to watch a couple of different families, one with a 1 year old and the other a 5 year old, as they played and cooled down in the river and then ate some more. The guides were all super helpful in answering our questions, telling us each elephant’s story, and you could tell they had a real connection with them.
Finally, after a quick snack and some iced tea (for us) it was bath time. This kind of ended up being for both the elephant and us as we all got utterly soaked, but I’m sure she enjoyed being covered in muddy water more than the rest of us!
When I returned to the hostel there were actually people there being sociable! I was pretty exhausted after two quite full on days, so it was nice to just spent the rest of the evening chilling out and chatting to some really sound people. After a while we decided to check out then night bazaar as everyone wanted to get some food, so we hopped in a songthaew. I’d been wanting to go there anyway but I was a bit disappointed. I think after the Sunday market it just felt quite touristy, over priced and inauthentic. Some of the others wanted to stay out for a drink but I needed some sleep and a couple of the other girls felt the same, so we walked back from there. Unfortunately I didn’t get any sleep that night, as the hostel staff were up until 6am drinking and talking right outside my room.
The next day I really just wanted to take it easy, see some of the sights around town and hopefully do some shopping (and get another pair of the Thailand backpacker staple, the “elephant pants”). There was a temple just round the corner from our hostel, Wat Chiang Man, and my plan was to see that in the morning then head to a market. Irma and Alice, the two girls I had walked back with the night before, wanted to join me, so after breakfast (I was getting slightly addicted to Thai omelette and rice first thing in the morning) we set off. The day was already stiflingly hot but luckily we didn’t have far to walk. My main reason for visiting Wat Chiang Man was the ‘Elephant Chedi’, but the whole temple was gorgeous. From there we walked up to the market just north of the city, but it turned out to be a massive let down as it just wasn’t the kind of things any of us were looking for. We did stumble across the huge produce market though, where huge buckets of live fish were being sold if you were happy to kill them yourself…
From there we took a tuk tuk to the Warorot Market hoping it would be a bit better, but again it was more of a food, fabric and bric-a-brac kind of affair. We decided to give up and walk back into the city to see what we could find there and for some lunch, and this was really what we should have done in the first place! Chiang Mai surprisingly has some really cool and unusual shops, and we spent ages browsing a second hand book shop and a kind of fairy fantasy themed jewellery shop before getting lunch.
After we’d eaten we were feeling pretty wiped so decided the best thing to do would be to go for a massage. The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution trains inmates within 6 months of their release in various skills as part of their rehabilitation, and one of them is massage. All of the money they earn through this they personally get to keep for their release, so you can feel like you’re doing a bit of a good deed as they pummel and knead you into a state of blissful relaxation. It was actually the first massage I’ve ever gotten but the girl who did it did a fantastic job on my sore, achy muscles. It’s a good thing it was only around the corner from our hostel, as we sleepily meandered back and pretty much all fell down in a dozy happy heap in the garden. Eventually we woke ourselves up enough to shower, and I headed back into town to see some more shops. After a day of hunting for them, the first stall I came across had the exact trousers I’d been looking for and I successfully managed to barter them down to a much cheaper price.
When I got back I returned to our garden hang out where the French guys were already chilling after their day with the elephants. Alice had to fly home that evening but Irma joined us as well and after a quick drinks run to 7/11 we stayed there the rest of the night drinking and chatting, while various other people stopped in and out. Really it wasn’t anything special, but it’s the people that make things enjoyable and it wound up being a perfect last night in Chiang Mai.
I still had most of the next day however, as my flight back to Bangkok wasn’t until the evening. I’d originally intended to see some more of the temples, feeling kind of bad that I hadn’t properly checked out a few of them after a quick glance during the Sunday Walking Street. But the night before, the French guys Pierre & Benjamin had said they were going to rent some scooters and head up to the waterfalls of Doi Suthep National Park, and frankly that sounded a hella lot more fun. So my last day in Chiang Mai was spent riding around the mountains, playing in waterfalls, and hiking through the jungle. The path we took for our hike clearly hadn’t been used for a while and we had to forge our own way a lot of the time, resulting in some minor injuries on my part as I attempted to scale a fallen tree. But at the bottom we were rewarded with a tiny stall selling bags of delicious plums, and to add a bit of protein to our snack, Benjamin found some red ants on a tree, and adamant that they tasted like lemon insisted that we all try one. And yes, they actually did. On our way back down the mountain we stopped off at another waterfall for some cliff jumping off the rocks surrounding the pool, which was heaps fun, but then it was time for us to go so I could catch my flight.
Getting back to Bangkok and Born Free felt nice and familiar, and I was warmly greeted by Sam the receptionist and Kevin the owner. My first stop was naturally their cafe for a massive plate of pad thai, and then Kevin invited me to join him and his friends for a drink at a local bar, the Cinema Winehouse, which had decent wine, great live music and lovely staff. Eventually the exhaustion set in though, and I had another early start the next morning, but all in all a pretty fantastic day.