Flying into Bangkok can be a daunting experience, especially if it’s your first time in a Southeast Asian capital. My first impressions were that it was dirty, crowded and full of people who want to rip you off. I did warm to the city on subsequent visits, but it’s fair to say that once you build up the courage to take on the local travel agents and venture outside the capital, northern Thailand has some absolute gems waiting to be discovered. First on our list of priorities was the city of Chiang Mai, accessible by air, train or bus. Set 700km north of the capital on the edge of Pui National Park, Chiang Mai is a lot more laid back and relaxed than Bangkok, with a tropical climate that promises year-round warmth. The city has more than its fair share of golden temples to keep history buffs appeased, while it’s just a stone’s throw away from luscious jungle on the slopes of the mountains, meaning there’s also plenty for nature lovers to appreciate as well.
The UK, where I’m from, has green fields, forests and woodland, but the jungle that surrounds the city of Chiang Mai trumps all this and then some. The best thing we did in Chiang Mai by far was to organise a two-day jungle trek, which involved a one-on-one elephant experience, swimming in waterfalls, bamboo rafting down a river and staying the night with a hill tribe. The terrain made the trek difficult at times, so be sure to pack your walking boots, but a refreshing dip in the cool water, with a waterfall thundering down around you made it all worth it in the end. Being given a tour of a local village also provided a fascinating insight into the lives of those in rural Thailand, who live and prosper far from the comforts of the modern world. Spending a night around the campfire, miles and miles from the closest source of light pollution also made for a spectacular view of the stars.
It would be remiss to visit Chiang Mai and neglect to take in some of its history and with more than 300 temples on offer, you really are spolit for choice and it can be hard to know where to begin. Wat Phra Singh is probably one of the city’s most famous temples and a safe bet to start with. The temple dates from the mid-13th century and the intricate architecture is breathtaking. Entry is a nominal 200 baisa and your ticket doubles as a map and guide. If you’re lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai during the middle of April, then taking part in the Songkran festival is a must. After all, there is no better way to celebrate the Thai New Year than with a good-natured dousing with a bucket of water. It makes for the perfect way to keep cool in the heat and humidity.
It can be difficult to know when you’re getting a good deal in Thailand, with tourists often suffering overinflated prices. More worryingly, several of the companies that run elephant experiences treat the animals cruelly, forcing them to endure distressing conditions, so it is vital that you do your research beforehand and make a kind choice. Try Eddy Elephant Care Chiang Mai and Baanchang Elephant Park for starters, or Friends for Asia Elephant Camp Volunteer Project if you want to get your hands dirty and do some good.
Chiang Mai has a fantastic night bazaar that comes alive with traders hawking their wares from dozens of colourful stalls when the sun goes down. With so much on offer, from clothing and jewellery to Buddhist trinkets and items fashioned out of recycled cans, perusing the stalls can seem often like an assault on the senses – just ensure you keep a clear head when it comes to the bartering process. If you’re a foodie, make sure you sample some of the street fare being cooked up in large woks over roaring flames.
Chiang Mai is crammed full of hostels and guesthouses to cater for the backpacking crowd on a budget and we stayed at the basic yet perfectly adequate BMP Residence. If you’re in the mood for some boutique luxury, then try the RatiLanna Riverside Spa Resort, close to the heart of Chiang Mai’s action on the banks of the Ping River, where a night will cost you anything from RO50 to RO280.
1. Venture out into the jungle on an organised trek
2. Bathe with elephants
3. Visit some of the many beautiful temples
4. Sample the culinary delights of the night bazaar
5. Talk to a Buddhist monk