29.01.2015 - 08.02.2015 30 °C
On January 29th we got up bright and early and boarded a ferry at Koh Phangan pier which took us to Surat Thani Airport where we would be flying directly to Chiang Mai. The ferry was littered with survivors of the previous nights half moon party, many holding their heads and trying to grab just one more wink of sleep as they traversed back to Koh Samui which is another island close by. Been there, done that and for second or two I felt like we missed out on a great party but that feeling quickly passed as I realized just how much better I felt then they did! It is never fun admitting that you are getting a bit older but those days of partying till the wee hours of morn are very few and far between, especially in the case of travel when you don't want to miss out on anything simply because you are too rough from the night before....I am not saying it won't happen on this tour, but for now I am taking a bit more of a reserved approach and still having a lot of fun! After a great chat with a gentleman from Finland in the airport where we exchanged travel stories, but most importantly our knowledge of Finland hockey players who where in the NHL, we boarded our plane and were in Chiang Mai just two short hours later. As I looked out the window during our landing approach I could tell we were somewhere completely different than anywhere we had been so far in Thailand. Mountains and jungle outlined every view you took in and rice fields were all over. Small subdivisions dotted the landscape as we neared the city and there was not quite the chaotic piling on of homes we had seen when landing in Manilla or Bangkok.
Cab service was readily available once we exited the airport and for 160 baht ($6 Cnd) we got to our hotel/apartment. We had booked a spot on line to make sure we had a place to rest at for the first couple nights with a plan to head out into the city during that time to find a new place closer to the pulse that we would stay at longer. Today is now February 8th and we have had all sorts of great experiences during our time in Chiang Mai and we still have 2 more days to go before we depart for Ho Chi Minh City on then 10th. Here are some of the highlights so far which will hopefully give some insight into what Chiang Mai is like as a place and to give some tips on things other people may want to try out while here.
Our first night in Chiang Mai we immediately noticed a huge difference in the vibe between this city and our only other Thailand city reference which was Bangkok. The pace seemed much slower, the streets less crowded and there was just this overall feeling of a being more relaxed. Now don't get me wrong, Chiang Mai is still a large city and there are plenty of busy streets and jammed up traffic areas but it was nowhere near the volume of what Bangkok threw at us. With help from the gentlemen at the front desk of our hotel we made the short walk to the Night Bizarre which is a must see in my books, as we actually went there on back to back nights. Any map you grab of Chiang Mai will have this place marked out on it. It is located outside the old city of Chiang Mai but there is plenty of cheap transportation that can get you there if you are not up for the walk. The night bizarre is open at 6pm and closes at 12am and once you are there you will find blocks and blocks of vendors, massage stops, restaurants with live music and deals deals deals! Mind you a lot of the clothing vendors are repetitive in what they are selling but there is something for everyone. A little bartering is expected so don't think you need to pay the stricker price on anything. Sherry and I really enjoyed chilling at some of the open air restaurants that had live music and watching the crowds roll by and I am sure Sherry would tell you her highlight was the Cabaret show that took place in the market at 9:30 pm every night. For 200 baht each, which included a drink, we were entertained for one hour by some of Chiang Mai's finest lady boy's. Nothing could have prepared me for the escapades that took place during that hour but it was all in good fun and well worth the time and money for a cheap laugh. Word to the wise though, do not sit in the front rows as they like to snatch up a few unwilling participants to come on stage.
Our first full day in Chiang Mai we made our way down to the old city with the plan of finding a place to stay for the next few nights which would get us closer to the pulse of city and the backpacker crowd so we could meet more people. There are guesthouses and boutiques all over the old city that you won't find on the Internet but that are more than decent for accommodations. We settled on Julie's place which had a large common area out front by the reception and it was fairly central in the old city. For 550 baht/night or about $20 can we had our next four nights stay arranged in a private room with air conditioning and a somewhat hot shower. I had never stayed in a hostel before, so this was a first for me and I wasn't quite ready to settle for a shared accommodation. Although we booked in for 4 nights we would only be spending 3 nights as we booked an overnight excursion to an elephant rescue centre which we left for after our first night at Julie's. Sleep was minimal during our first night at Julie's, partly because we where afraid of missing our early morning pick up and partly because of some the noises that crept into our room from outside. No biggy though, it's all apart of the experience though right.......There are tons of different elephant excursions you can choose to go on and the way we decided on ours was through a reference from some people we talked to a couple days earlier who said they really enjoyed their stay and felt like the elephants where being treated quite well. The elephant retreat was an experience I won't soon forget as we got to spend a lot of time with the elephants feeding and going for short rides, but maybe the most memorable part for me was getting to spend time around the camp once the rest of the tour groups left. Sherry and I were the only two staying over so we got a a really cool behind the scenes experience. Some of it involved the elephants but a lot of it was spending time around the Mahout (elephant trainer - 1 dedicated per elephant) and the rest of the amazing people who worked at the retreat. I found myself working alongside the Mahout helping to feed the elephants (see pictures) and also mixing up some cement so we could make posts for a game called Takraw, which we eventually played out about 8 games of. The people at the rescue centre where amazing. So friendly and enjoyable to be around. Even though most did not speak any English and I know very little Thai, we still had a lot of laughs as we shared the common grounds of work and play. Sherry spent time hanging out with the women of the centre who welcomed her in and the even gave her the chance to try some fried up crickets which she brought over to me for a taste test as well....they where pretty good actually. At night we settled in to our loft up in the hills which was open air and had a couple mats, some pillows and blankets enclosed in a mosquito net to protect us from the creatures of the night. Again sleep was minimal but I wouldn't change a thing as waking up and looking down over the retreat in the mornjng to see the elephants grazing around was priceless. In the afternoon of day two we hooked up with another tour group and went Ina white water rapid tour which was a lot of fun and we got to meet lots more cool people from around the world. I could go on and on about our time at the rescue centre but I should likely get to a few more Chiang Mai highlights. Check out our pictures for some more insights into the time we spent with the elephants.
Once we made it back to our guesthouse we settled in for some more laid back time where we tried to catch up on sleep and took time just to walk around the old city taking in all it had to offer. Unlike Bangkok where we tried all sorts of transportation out, in Chiang Mai we have been getting our exercise and walking all over. Many people choose to rent scooters or peddle bikes during their stays but seeing the way traffic works around the city I think our safest bet is to stay on the side walks. We where fortunate to meet many people during our stay at Julie's and as we toured around the city. We have definitely noticed that there are many more Canadians, Americans and people from the UK in Chiang Mai which has made it easier to spark up a conversation. We have also had the opportunity to meet up with a fiend from back home who has been in Chiang Mai for almost month now completing a Yoga course. It was definitely nice to see a familiar face from home and we have had a few good dinners out catching up on our travels completed and talking about what's next. Thanks for all your hospitality Jillene, Sherry and I really enjoyed your company. There have been so many great places to go out and eat at, with a place for every budget as well. It is not hard to find a place where you can get a full meal and a large beer for $3 Canadian but there are also some more upscale joints if you are looking to treat your significant other to a special night out....we have been enjoying the $3 meals hahahaha. A couple of pieces of advice for new travellers to Chiang Mai would be to definitively tour the old city for a place to stay - not everything is in the web. When you do find a place you like and you are staying for many nights, don't be shy to try for a discount. When it comes to getting around there are many options depending on your budget. If the weather is great and you are not in a rush, walking is a great way to see the city. Tuk Tuks and taxis add up over time, but in most cases you can barter with them as well to get your costs down. Make sure you carry a map around with you at all times so that if you do decide to flag down a Tuk Tuk you can show them where you want to go, as languages outside of Thai, even a written down address in English doesn't always help. Lastly, there is plenty to do outside of Chiang Mai city as well and tourist offices everywhere wiling to take your money in exchange for a tour. Make sure you do your research on specific tours before taking them, trip advisor is a great source of inside info to help you from getting burned. When we booked a tour to see elephants we did so over email with the company after reading many reviews. We where also able to get a discount that way. When we booked a tour to see the white temple, longneck tribe and the hot springs, we booked through our hotel and we where pretty disappointed with what we got. There was an up sell along the way for something we didn't even want and out of a 10 hour day we spent only about 2 hours doing what we had thought we where going to do. Tourism is a huge industry in Chiang Mai and there are plenty of scams waiting for the uniformed participant. Do your homework and you should be fine.
Well that's just about enough rambling for now. Next time you hear from us we will be in Vietnam enjoying Ho Chi Minh city and Mui Ne which is a surf and fishing area on the west coast. I will have some more details on our time in Chiang Mai coming as well - just too hard to jam it all in one post!
Shayne and Sherry