Chiang Mai: Elephants, Temples, and Pad Thai, Oh My!

Thailand has become a very popular destination for Americans over the past several years, and we’ve had a lot of friends visit and come home with stories and recommendations. One place that people seem to love is Chaing Mai in the northern part of the country, so we were eager to see what it was all about.

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We traveled to Chiang Mai from Bangkok on the sleeper train (about 14 hours) and it was actually quite pleasant. There were four of us traveling together so we shared one berth and spent the evening playing monopoly, eating snacks, and listening to music. The people in the berths next to us were two Thai families, and the children (cousins) got to stay in one together. They had tons of toys and candy and were running around singing songs together. I kept thinking how much fun it would’ve been to go on a trip like that with my cousins when I was a child! When we arrived in Chaing Mai we hopped off the train and into a tuk tuk to head to our hostel, and thank goodness the little vehicle was so adorable because I reached into my bag to take a picture only to quickly realize that my phone was missing. Luckily I was able to run back into the train station and onto the car searching for it. The conductor approached me as I was rummaging through piles of sheets and held up my phone in its little pink case. Phew.

As we drove through Chaing Mai toward our hostel in the center of town we were surprised by how big and modern the city was. Based on what we’d heard from friends we had been expecting to find a less busy, more remote town set in the jungle of northern Thailand (clearly I hadn’t done a lot of research 😉 ) but instead we were greeted by streets of restaurants and shops – some authentically Thai, some with significant western influence – and an abundance of accommodations catering to the influx of backpackers visiting the area. However, several temples were dotted throughout the city reminding us that we were still in the midst of a country rich with Buddhist influence.

We stayed in two hostels in Chiang Mai, and in both we shared a “family room” with Johnny and Kyle (slumber party!!!). The first was Counting Sheep where our room was new, clean, and comfortable and there was a nice common sitting area. The second was Diva’s where our room was old, dirty, and uncomfortable but the two women running the hostel were very helpful, fiercely animated, and quite funny! We saved a lot of money by staying here, but at the end of it we all decided it wasn’t quite worth it. “I guess we do have a standard after all,” Jeff decided.

Our stay might have been a bit clouded by the accommodations we stayed in, and we all agreed that we stayed a bit longer than we needed to, BUT we ultimately had a great time in Chiang Mai. Below are the highlights from our week in this city.

  •  Elephant Experience – We had heard so much about the elephant experiences near Chiang Mai and were eager to try one out. It was important to us to find a company that prioritizes proper treatment of the elephants over popular tourist experiences such as riding the animals. We had read positive things about Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, so we booked a half day tour with them. Although we had fun, it was not quite what we were expecting – the feeding was intimidating because the elephants were aggressively trying to grab bananas from everyone and the water the elephants bathed in was filled with poop. Also, our group was mostly people in their late teens and early twenties who were looking to have mud (poop?) fights and risk their safety for pictures with the ellies. It seems like choosing an elephant experience with a smaller group would be better.
  •  Learning to Cook Thai Cuisine – Tom Yum Cooking School. A fun, happy day of cooking delicious Thai food. We’ll write more about this in a separate post.
  •  Sunday Night Market – Bright colors, delicious smells, spicy food, soft drums. The market was a bustling adventure for the senses. The streets were lined with merchants selling goods, and the interior square was filled with street food stalls. Well worth experiencing!
  •  Motorbiking Around – We rented motor scooters and rode outside of town, which was wonderful – the roads were less busy, the scenery more natural. It provided a nice break from the city streets of Chiang Mai – much quieter, greener and more scenic than the area within the walled city. Oh, and the motor bikes were pretty cheap to rent and easy to drive (says Jeff).
  •  Waterfalls – On our motorbike tour we stopped off at Pha Ngerb Waterfall, a lovely wooded area with a small waterfall. Apparently the monks visit it often and they have tied orange fabric on trees to mark the path. It was a lovely visit until I slipped on the rocks and nearly fell into the rushing water. Fortunately I walked away with only a few scrapes and some bruises.
  •  Temples – The most wonderful temple experience we had in Thailand was Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple. We rode motorbikes there (about an hour drive) and walked up the hundreds of stairs to reach the temple. It is beautifully colorful and provides a gorgeous view of the city.
  •  Golfing – Jeff and Johnny hadn’t golfed in many months but they found Gymkhana Golf Club, an inexpensive decent looking course near Chiang Mai, so they rented bikes and headed for a round. Certainly not your typical Thailand activity, but they had fun!
  •  Shopping – The night market was filled with goods ranging from wooden bowls and tapestries to woven purses and silver jewelry. They also sold beautiful paintings and postcards. Kyle and I found a few local boutiques to shop at as well, and we were enthralled by the textiles (pillow covers, tapestries, rugs, purses!).
  • Hanging with the Locals – We walked down to the corner to pick up beers and ran into a group of people running a street bar. They were hilariously singing American pop songs and loved talking to us about our visit to Thailand. See picture above!
  •  Eating and Drinking – Lots of delicious food (we ate a lot of pad Thai!) and fun bars in the area…
    • Street Food – we loved the street food at the Sunday Night Market. Jeff and I shared spring rolls and pad Thai.
    • Taj Mahal – wonderful, cheap Indian food.
    • Girasole – great pizza (and other Italian food) and good, inexpensive wine.
    •  48 Garage – a fun, outdoor bar where you order drinks from an old airstream.
    • Spicy – a rooftop bar just outside the walled city. Fun music, cool vibe, good drinks!

Overall we loved our time in this quirky city, and we’re excited to go back to Thailand in a few weeks to visit the islands in the south.

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