We were both a little sad at leaving Phuket. Everything had gone well and we were becoming comfortable and settled. At the same time we were looking forward to, and excited about, visiting Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. This was another place Steve visited many years ago and it would be a new location for Sarah.
It was out of luck rather than good planning that we arrived on the holiday of Yi Peng. The city was decorated with lanterns and people were sending small decorative floats into the river which runs next to the old town. These floats were made of palm leaves, colorful flowers, and had a candle in the middle which were religious offerings.
The main attraction of the evening was a long parade of various sections of the community, including people from outlying towns and villages. They were either dressed in traditional clothing or the clothing of the sports club or department they were representing. Each one was accompanied by a heavily decorated float, all competing for the prize of best turned out.
Every so often part of a marching band was interspersed with the parade and each group provided its own, very loud, accompanying music. It was all a sight to be seen for sure.
We were entertained by the parade for a couple of hours but with our stomachs rumbling and the line of floats still stretching into the distance we left in search of food, so we never did find out who won the grand prize. Steve thought the one that looked like a cross between The Lord of the Rings and The Little Mermaid was a definite contender.
Accommodation options for our first four days in Chiang Mai was thin on the ground, obviously due to the holiday weekend. We managed to find a hotel room which was nothing special but suited our needs and was a 15 minute walk to the old town.
Chiang Mai is an ancient city and is almost 800 years old. The city limits have expanded over time to make it the second biggest in Thailand. At the very heart is The Old Town, almost a perfect square with each side measuring a mile in length. Parts of the original wall and the four entrance gates still remain and the moat which surrounds The Old Town is still intact.
The Old Town is a fascinating place to wander around. A mix of Thai buildings from what seems like every year since the city was formed, all jumbled in together in a myriad of streets. The buildings contain everything from backpacker hostels to 5-star boutique hotels, from the ever present 7/11 convenience stores to upmarket fashion shops, and from street food vendors to high quality restaurants.
But probably the stand out feature of The Old Town is the vast number of exquisitely decorated temples. There are over 300 in Chiang Mai and a large proportion of them are in The Old Town.
Around every corner is another temple seemingly more impressive than the one before. You really have to be selective or you could spend weeks checking them out.
After the first four days we moved to an apartment close by. This was quite compact but was very modern, had everything we needed, and the added bonus of a roof top infinity pool. We were starting to feel like we might never leave Thailand.
Chiang Mai sits in a valley surrounded by mountains with the highest ones being only three miles from the centre. This meant that with only a few minutes of fighting the city traffic Steve could be out on perfectly smooth tarmaced roads, that twisted their way up and up into the thick jungle with virtually no traffic.
We quickly established a routine of Steve cycling in the mornings while Sarah wandered around exploring the Old Town, doing bits of shopping and spending some time on her online Spanish course.
In the afternoon we would lay by the pool and then on most evenings we would venture into the Night Bazaar area. This is a big expanse, over several blocks, which contains markets, street food and entertainment. To be honest just strolling around was entertainment in itself.
We had planned, as normal, to cook for ourselves in the evenings but the street food was so good and so cheap it was silly not to do it. We could eat a ton of great food and have change out of £5 for both of us! Sarah became addicted to Thai Yellow Curry, rice noodles and corn fritters. The woman who ran the stall had already started her order when she saw her coming each night.
Everyday that went by we enjoyed Chiang Mai even more. We could understand why it has become a favourite for digital nomads and expats.
There were a couple of things we wanted to do outside the city though and one of them was to visit an elephant sanctuary.
Some of our best memories from travel have been through wildlife encounters. But we are extremely conscious about doing this in the right way. We are very aware how in many places animals are exploited for tourism and are made to work in terrible conditions.
When we saw humpbacks in Australia we did it with a conservation project accompanied by marine biologists. We swam with Whale Sharks where tour licenses were strictly controlled and protocols were enforced. We try to put ourselves in safe situations where we see animals in their natural surroundings such as Big Crocs, Cayman, Sea Eagles, Cassowary to name a few.
So when we decided to try and see elephants in Thailand we carried out a ton of research before we committed.
We eventually decided on a sanctuary an hour outside of the city with only six elephants, (five adults and a four year old!). All had been rescued from either the logging industry in Thailand or Laos, or from a circus. The sanctuary effectively take any profits from the tourism and save until they can afford to actually buy the elephants from the logging industry.
They are then brought back to the huge area of the sanctuary where they are free to roam around the jungle at will. They are not forced to interact with visitors but when you spend 20 hours a day eating and there is easy bananas and sugar cane on offer at the main centre they are pretty much guaranteed to turn up.
We made the journey up to the sanctuary in the back of a songthaew (more on those later) and what a day we had.
From start to finish it was incredible. You get up close and personal with the elephants and also get to feed them. You are encouraged to carry as much as you can hold as they are big eaters.
Once the food is gone the elephants are free to wander off back into the jungle. However, there is a mud pool nearby and the elephants sometimes like a dip in there to cool off. We were lucky that three of them chose this option and we were encouraged to get into the mud pool and help cover them in mud. One elephant in particular seemed to be enjoying this and almost completely submerged herself with her trunk sticking up like a snorkel.
After the mud bath it was time for the swimming pool to wash off. So we followed them to a large natural pool and all jumped in together.
It reminded us of the equivalent of a top spa day. Some nice food, a mud bath treatment, a refreshing swim and then off to relax for the afternoon. “Not a bad retirement home after a life of hard labour”, said Steve.
The day had been so much more than we had expected and Sarah in particular was in her element.
Lunch for us was part of the deal, but this had a bit of a twist to it. We were given a cooking demonstration and then told to get on with it and cook our own Thai chicken noodle soup. Luckily it was pretty straightforward and only one or two over did it on the spices!
When we look back at our travels in the future, there will be some days which will really stand out above others as being amazing experiences and we are sure our day with the elephants will be one of them. It was awesome!
In many of the countries we visit, getting around using local transport is all part of the fun. This is no more true than in Thailand and South East Asia as a whole.
Chiang Mai has its fair share of the ever present tuk-tuk, found all over Asia. But it is also home to a large number of Songthaew (pronounced songtail).
These are similar in design and function to the ‘Collectivios’ in Mexico but with no fixed route. Essentially they are Toyoto Hilux cabs with a covered back which contains two wooden benches on opposite sides, in which you can squeeze up to 12 people (Thai’s are quite small). They have no fixed route and each journey costs 30 bhat (about 70p).
You stand on the street, flag one down and tell the driver where you want to go. You then jump in the back and off you go until someone else flags the driver down whose destination is likely to involve a small detour. On this detour someone else gets in and another detour is taken, and so on, until you arrive at you destination, or as near to it as you are willing to accept! I suppose the tip is, don’t use songthaews if you are in a hurry, but if you’re not, sit back and enjoy the tour.
The other thing we really wanted to do whilst in Chiang Mai was to visit the temple at Doi Suthep. This is an important temple complex and stands on a mountain 3000 feet up, outside of the city.
Steve had already been up to the entrance seven times as it was on one of his cycling routes. But this time we made the climb together once more in the back of a songthaew.
The temple complex is amazing and well worth the journey up. Not only are the buildings themselves visually impressive but the view across the city and the whole valley was amazing.
We wandered around the complex and came across a small temple where a few people were queuing. We saw that there was a Buddhist monk sitting inside and the people were queuing for a blessing. Although the rest of the people appeared to all be Buddhist, Sarah decided to join the queue. When she got to the front she was warmly welcomed by the monk who happened to speak a little English and she received her blessing, after which the monk encouraged Steve to take a photograph of the experience.
A couple of days later Steve made another trip to the 11km hill to Doi Suthep. This time as he approached the start it was incredibly busy with people everywhere and the road was blocked by army personnel. Steve spoke to a few people and it transpired it was part of the local university graduation celebrations. All the students were making the pilgrimage to the temple by foot and the only vehicles being allowed through were support vehicles, mopeds and cycles. Brilliant thought Steve, this should be fun and off he went.
There were well over 5,000 people walking up the mountain that day, maybe even double that. All were walking up in a disciplined line, wearing the shirts of their various university courses, and all looking like they were having a great time.
Every kilometre or so there were aid stations giving out free water, energy drinks and food, some even had barbecues on the go.
It was another one of those unexpected events that we seem to encounter with what seems like a growing regularity. Travel is great.
It seemed like only yesterday that we met Mike back in Kuala Lumpur, but we have been in Asia for 6 weeks! We have done so much and it has been brilliant from start to finish but it has gone in a flash. Our plan is to return for more of South East Asia for a month next March, maybe to Vietnam and Cambodia. But for now we are continuing ever further South to Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud, or what most people know as New Zealand!