This is the eleventh in a series of posts documenting my January 2019 trip around the world, which took me to Victoria Falls, Cape Town, Chiang Mai, and Hong Kong. You can read my last post, which covered the Holiday Inn Chiang Mai, here.
I had almost three days in Chiang Mai, and I was able to do a ton in that short time. Ideally, I probably would have had a fourth, as I didn’t get to explore the city of Chiang Mai itself – particularly outside of the historic/touristy walled center.
Day 1: Historic Chiang Mai
I got a later start on day 1 than intended, partially due to how long immigration took upon arrival. At around 2pm, I took a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from the Holiday Inn to Wat Chedi Luang, one of the large temples in the historic center. I paid way too much for that tuk-tuk ride as I was meek and didn’t negotiate (200 baht – ~$6), but the tuk tuk experience is pretty fun. It’s basically a pedicab on a motorcycle. I took some video of my rides around town.
I spent some time walking around the various temples, and it was good to be on my feet in the outdoors after nearly 24 hours of travel from Cape Town. As for the temples, they were temples. Once you’ve seen a lot, they all kind of blend together – especially since they were all super crowded and it was hot. You can do a “Monk Chat” where you talk to the monks and learn more about their lives and the temples, which I recommend if you have the time.
I hadn’t eaten since the Cathay Dragon breakfast, so headed to SP Chicken, a well known restaurant serving traditional gai yang – basically chargrilled chicken, about a ten-minute walk from Wat Chedi Luang. It was very bare bones but very delicious and fast; my half-chicken and rice, soda, and a water came to 130 baht, about $4. The sauce was especially delicious.
My body still didn’t really know when or where it was, but I walked over to the Chiang Mai Historical Centre, a museum in what seemed a more quiet and peaceful area. The ticket was 180 baht and included admission to the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Center next door, and the Lanna Folklife Museum just beyond that. My notes reflect that I was most grateful for the excellent air conditioning. Each had some great exhibits about life in the area over the centuries, including a lot of somewhat creepy life-size dioramas. But they were well done and I really learned a lot about Chiang Mai and its people.
I had originally thought I’d get a massage at the Women’s Massage Center by Ex-Prisoners, which is, as the name suggests, staffed by former women prisoners who take part in a special vocational training program, but I was very tired and it was getting late. So, I wandered a bit and took a tuk tuk back to the hotel, which was only 150 baht this time.
After an amazing nap, I took the Holiday Inn complimentary shuttle to the Night Bazaar area, which is in between the walled city and the hotel. The night market was nothing special at all, and very similar to the touristy markets I had been to in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Penang. Most of what was on offer was mass-produced generic junk. I wandered around and bought zero. There are a ton of massage parlors near the market, though, and my neck was bothering me, so I picked a random one and got a 30-minute neck and head massage for 150 baht – less than five dollars. Not the fanciest by any means but well worth the price.
Before heading back to the hotel, I decided to eat at the Whole Earth, a Thai restaurant with a lovely garden seating area, even though it was not particularly cheap as it had a really nice ambience. The menu was a fairly standard Thai and Indian array, geared towards the tourist palace. A nice place to sit and relax though, and just where the Holiday Inn shuttles came to pick me back up.
Day 2: Biking and Kayaking the Mae Ngat Valley
Several months before my trip, I booked an excursion that included biking, hiking, and kayaking excursion to the west of the city. The day I arrived, though, I got a call at the hotel saying I was the only one who had booked that trip, and asking if I could do just a biking and kayaking one instead. I confirmed that it was the same length of time, as the one I had booked was supposed to be only 5 hours, and he said yes, so I went ahead with. Alas it was much longer – I got picked up at 8:30am and didn’t get back until 5:40pm. Still an enjoyable day though.
The excursion was run by Chiang Mai Mountain Biking and Kayaks, and you can see details of the trip on their website here. There was first a brief orientation at their offices in the historic city, and then we piled into a semi-open truck for the trafficky drive to Wat Ban Den, 25 miles north of the city. The group was pretty small: me, a British twenty-something guy, an American couple in their 50s or 60s, and a British couple in their 60s.
First, we had some free time at Wat Ban Den, which is a massive, predominantly newly constructed temple complex. It was quite extravagant.
After exploring, we got on our bikes for a two-hour ride through the Mae Ngat Valley, which included rice paddies, small towns, and forest. I put together a rather long video from my GoPro, so feel free to skip through. We did at one point encounter a massive group of Thai scouts hiking along the road and they were very friendly. The British man did not make it so we left him at our pit stop, and he joined up with us again for the kayaking part.
Kayaking down the Ping River was pretty and relaxing. There was no current at all, so it was fairly strenuous. I did not fall in, though the British couple did. Our guide was a Thai local in his early 20s, who didn’t really have much to share and seemed a bit bored, but there may have just been nothing to share.
After kayaking, we were taken to a local restaurant where we had passable pad thai and chicken fingers.
That night, I ended up at Sababa, a random Israeli restaurant near the night market.
Day 3: Elephants and Warorot Market
My final day was super jam-packed, as I intended to get a lot done before heading to the airport around 3pm. It started with a 6:45am pickup in another semi-open truck for a trip to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
There are a ton of elephant-related activities in Chiang Mai, and Thailand more generally, and it was important to me to do one that was ethical. Unfortunately, a lot of operators say they are ethical, and yet engage in unethical practices. I was satisfied with the reviews I read of the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, and did not see any of the practices that people say to look out for on my day there (i.e., riding, dancing, etc.)
Most of the elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary are actually owned by private individuals, but the Sanctuary pays them to live with the elephants on their land rather than making the elephants work as a source of income. So, most of the elephants have a “handler” who actually has been with them for decades.
We arrived at Camp 6, southwest of the city, at around 8:45am. The crowd was mostly younger people and some families. After a brief orientation, elephants came out, and we were able to feed them bananas and watermelon, pet them, etc. It was very cool and elephants are quite sociable. One nice thing is that the company provides a cameraman who takes photos for free, so you can just focus on the animals.
After some feeding it was time to change into bathing suits for mud baths with the elephants, followed by a river swim to wash off. The elephants definitely enjoyed that!
Finally, there was an early lunch of chicken and potato curry, rice, and salad, before meeting a baby elephant and his mama, and heading back to the city around noon.
I was back at the Holiday Inn by 1:15, and took a shower and power-nap before taking a tuk-tuk to the Warorot Market, between the hotel and walled city. This market was ten times better than the night market, as the market hall and surrounding streets were filled with locals and a more authentic experience. I didn’t buy much, although a woman at a store scolded me that there was no way a size large t-shirt would fit me (it does). But I really enjoyed walking around, and even though I’d ate a few hours ago, I finally got some traditional khao soi – a Chiang Mai specialty– in the food hall of the market and it was super-delicious. I’d say a cross between a curry and a soup, with noodles and chicken, and only 40 baht (~$1.25). Then it was time for a ten-minute, 100-baht tuk tuk back to the hotel, where I picked up my luggage and headed to the airport.
My Chiang Mai experience was heavy on the doing and less on the cultural, but it fit nicely in with the rest of my round-the-world adventure. I definitely recommend exploring the region if you find yourself in Thailand.