Chilling in Chiang Mai

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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.

Mojito Garden 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.


Sunday Night Walking Street

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.



Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

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.

The flower garden in the hill tribe village

At the bottom of the 309 steps and relaxing in the village

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…


Wat Chiang Man

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.

Jungle trekking and playing in waterfalls

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.

Tree pose on a tree in a waterfall…


Beginning in Bangkok

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If I had to sum up Bangkok in two words after my first three days there, they would be dirty and fun.

I left Scotland to 2•c and the threat of snow, but as I stepped off the Sky Train at Phraya Thai in Bangkok the wall of heat and humidity hit me hard despite it still being early in the morning. After about 5 minutes of walking in it, I started to seriously regret my decision to walk the 5km to my hostel to ‘stretch my legs’ after 20 hours of travelling.

I also quite quickly discovered that walking across Bangkok is nothing like walking around a city in Europe. The place is crisscrossed with highways 10 lanes wide, and if you try to take a short cut or a quieter street to get away from the traffic you easily get lost, end up at a dead end, or walking through someone’s home which has spilled out into the street. And so after many wrong turns and dragging my batter suitcase through some slightly unsavoury neighbourhoods, I finally stumbled into my hostel two hour later, a sweaty, sleep deprived mess, possibly still slightly drunk from the plane.

While in Bangkok I was staying at the Born Free Hostel on Samsen Soi 6, which is about a 5 minute walk from Khao San Road, so is practical but in a slightly less loud, touristy area. When I arrived it was too early to check in, but I was thankfully able to leave my bags and have the best cold shower of my life. My first thought after that was to go and find some real food after one too many plane meals. On the long walk over I had passed so much delicious smelling street food so that was the plan, but typically on wandering out of my hostel I couldn’t find anything that looked even halfway decent.

After getting to grips with the neighbourhood I thought I’d head towards the Grand Palace and find something to eat on the way. I was finding Bangkok fairly difficult to navigate, and while trying to find the place I bumped into two Austrian and two Canadian girls who had all also just arrived and were just as lost. We joined together and managed to find the complex which it sits in, and after passport checks and making sure we were adequately covered up we were allowed in. From there it was about a 20 minute walk to the Grand Palace itself, and only once there were we all told that we were still inappropriately dressed and forced to buy clothes to cover up more. I am now the less than proud owner of an ‘I ❤️ Thailand’ t-shirt.


The Grand Palace

We had a look around the outside, which in itself is beautiful, but all of us opted not to pay to get in to the temple itself as we were all hungry, tired, and figured we would come back and see it properly when we felt more up to it. The plan from there was to finally get some food, but as we were leaving we realised we were night next to Wat Pho and that we might as well check it out while we were there and had the necessary cover ups. I have to say that despite all of us feeling awful it was definitely worth it and I’m glad we went there instead.

Wat Pho is best known for being the home of the giant Reclining Buddha, but everything else there is equally as impressive. The grounds with the mosaic encrusted buildings sparkling gold in the sunlight, all the small temples, the hundreds of Buddhas, it really is something special. We were even invited to listen to a monk who was giving a casual conversation  in one of the shrines we entered. By this point we had lost the Canadians, and me and the Austrian girls were really feeling the combination of heat, hunger and jet lag, so we decided to call it a day and went back to our hostels.

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Wat Pho

After another glorious cold shower I set off again with determination to find some food, as well as a place to sit and write my journal. But while looking at the food in one place, I saw some guys sitting outside a bar bartering over scorpions on a stick and, well, I had to watch them eat it. They asked me to join them for a drink and luckily there was a guy across the road making pad thai, so I grabbed some food, ordered a large G&T, and watched them bravely eat scorpions. The verdict – tastes like chicken skin with a very bad after taste. It turned out they were all new in Bangkok as well and the girls were even staying in my hostel so we figured we’d all spend our first evening together.

The girls wanted to go back and change, but me and the guys then spent the rest of the night bar hopping around Khao San Road, Rambuttri Road, and some of the small streets near my hostel, where we found this great little cocktail bar. As for Khao San Road itself, I have to say I don’t love it. It’s a laugh, and worth checking out, but if you actually want to be able to speak to people? Not a chance. It’s loud, it’s in your face, and we all had a much better time a time some of the other places we found. Eventually the jet lag kicked in for all of us though, and after a fairly impressively 60 hours awake, I finally got some sleep.

Cocktails & Khao San Road

After an amazing 10 hour sleep, I woke up the next morning feeling so much better and apparently not feeling the effects of jet lag! Without any real plan in place, I was just chilling in the lounge area of the hostel and started chatting to 3 guys who were staying there. We were all feeling the need for food, and they said that the hostel’s cafe across the street does the best pad thai ever. And it really does. Their smoothies were also amazing, and feeling much better (and a lot fuller) me and one of the guys decided to borrow the hostel’s free bikes and go for a quick cycle. I don’t think either of us counted on this becoming an 8 hour bike ride but hey.

Delicious, authentic Thai food at the Born Free cafe

I’m in 2 minds about cycling in Bangkok. On the one hand I’d say it’s the best way to get around. The city is almost completely flat and it’s big enough that walking isn’t always an option (and that’s saying something coming from me!). But the streets themselves aren’t the nicest for cycling. As I said before, it’s either massive highways or bumpy back streets, and it’s an every man for himself kind of deal in terms of safety and right of way. I wouldn’t let that put you off though, as long as you’re a confident cyclist it’s heaps fun.

We had a bit of a strange day in terms of what we actually saw. Originally we set out without a real plan, then chose to go to Lumphini Park. By the time we got there we were hungry (again. As someone who doesn’t usually eat much I seem to constantly be hungry but also spend most of my time eating. Definitely coming back a stone heavier.) Unfortunately there wasn’t much around in the way of places to eat, but we had just passed through a hospital and noticed it had a canteen so figured it was at least something. I went for the lighter option of a papaya salad, as we’d already had lunch but it was too early for dinner, and it was as average as can be expected from a hospital canteen. Although the milk teas we had made up for the food!

Once we had refuelled we went for a cycle around the park, where we  had a close encounter with a rather large monitor lizard who was just chilling by the stream, saw some cute wee turtles swimming about in the lake, and then were told that you weren’t allowed to cycle in the park after 3pm. Why, I couldn’t quite understand, but we were literally told to get on our bikes. Another idea we had had was to see Wat Arun from the boat at night when it’s lit up, so we set off in the rough direction of the river. On our way there we were passing down an alley where some really nice looking food was being cooked, so stopped for another quick bite and I finally got to try Thai sausages. Pretty damn good. We got to the boat stop and after a long time trying to figure out how the system even worked we were told that for health and safety reasons we couldn’t take our bikes on the boat. Bit rich considering where we were, but as much as we pleaded it was a solid no. So with no choice but to cycle the rest of the way back, we grabbed a couple of beers and found a spot by the river to see the temple from – only to discover that it wasn’t lit up. Still, it made a nice break from sitting on a bike seat all day and sometimes it’s nice to just sit and watch the city go by.

The Chao Phraya River

The remainder of the trip back wasn’t actually that long, as getting around by bike here is actually really quick, but it was still 9:30 when we made it to the hostel. That probably would have been a good time to go to bed but instead I wandered out to meet the guys from the night before for a couple of beers. Afterwards they moved on to Khao San Road, and after two minutes in a club there it cemented my opinion that the place really isn’t for me and I headed back for some much needed sleep.

Despite going to bed at 2am the night before, I managed to get up early on Saturday with plans to go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market. This meant negotiating the Bangkok bus service, which still confuses and frustrates the hell out of me. Another reason bikes are better.

The market is huge; It spreads over 35 acres with more than 8,000 stalls. I didn’t have anything in particular I wanted to buy apart from maybe some clothes and breakfast, but it is fun just to browse as you can buy pretty much everything there, whether it’s tacky souvenirs, art, or a pet squirrel. I got some mango sticky rice and a fresh lime juice for a bit of fuel and then spent the next couple of hours wandering the stalls. Even after that long I was sure there were things I’d missed, but it was getting to midday and the heat in such a crowded space started to become unbearable.

Once I’d got back to the hostel and showered again, I was getting some serious cravings for the pad thai from across the street so headed there for lunch. And somehow it was even better than the day before! I spent a couple of hours just relaxing, reading, writing & making travel plans, but after a while was itching to move. Admittedly there wasn’t anything in particular I really wanted to do, so when one of the guys said he was going to the market I just tagged along for something to do.

Just a glimpse of the market

It probably wasn’t the best idea. Having to sit on the bus again, this time in heavy traffic, and then the torrential rain started. By the time we got to Chatuchak, the lanes between stalls were more like rivers and half of the market was inaccessible. We had a quick browse but it was pretty miserable, though we did get some coconut ice cream to make it a bit better. Turns out it was a localised rain storm as well and if we’d stayed near the hostel would have missed it, but oh well.

My plan for the evening was to just stay in, relax, and get a cheap dinner somewhere, but inevitably with hostel living plans never get stuck to. I got talking to a guy who had just arrived in Thailand and wanted to try some good Thai food. My first choice was the cocktail bar I visited on my first night, but we were too early for food so just went to the Born Free Cafe instead. As much as I’d have loved another of their pad thai, I felt like one a day was enough and that I should branch out, so had a Pha Ngan curry instead, which was also really good. Afterwards he wanted to see what Khao San Road was like, and two very young girls from his room wanted to come too. Having not ever wanted to go back there, I somehow found myself spending another evening on that street, but called it quits at 9 and came back for an early night, slightly wishing I had just spent the evening by myself. I’d been lucky in the people I met my first days as we got on really well, and had kinda forgotten that not everyone you meet in hostels will be your type of person.

Still it was sad to leave the place the next morning, although I decided to come back for my very brief stay after Chiang Mai. Overall, Bangkok was a lot better than I expected. Yes it’s a big, car filled city, and you never quite feel clean there. But once you accept that, it has so much to offer and something for everyone – great food, friendly people, fun bars, stunning temples, and endless shopping opportunities to name just a few. I’ve only just left but I’m already looking forward to coming back.