Play with elephants, explore golden temples, get a massage from female prisoners and eat the best pad thai of your life in Chiang Mai, the jungle paradise of northern Thailand.
Chiang Mai is a bit out of the way, so many visitors are forced to choose between the jungles of northern Thailand and the picturesque islands of the south. Naturally, I refused to settle for just one or the other, so we did a whirlwind tour of both. We flew directly from the southern island of Phuket, landing in Chiang Mai around 9:00pm and taking a tuk-tuk (a truck with an open air, covered truck bed and benches for passengers to sit on) from the airport to our hotel, Aoi Garden Home.
I’ve come a long way in terms of being outdoorsy, but this resembled camping a little too much for my taste. The mosquitoes and lack of air conditioning in open air villas wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. (No thanks, malaria.) The one good thing about this place was the number of friendly cats roaming around. We all know how I feel about cats…
Chiang Mai is paradise for hippies, backpackers and free-spirited travelers. Even if you don’t fall into one of those camps, you’ll love the laid back atmosphere and you’ll revel in the people watching. We were hungry on arrival, so we set out in search of late night street food and and stumbled onto a middle-of-the-road drum circle filled with barefoot, tie-dyed, dread-headed hippies. They seemed to be in such a state of euphoria with their dance moves that they didn’t even notice the crowd around them. We foraged ahead and selected the $1 coconut curry over the fried insects.
Here are the highlights from my time in Chiang Mai.
#1. Temple hopping
Chiang Mai is like a real life version of Legends of the Hidden Temple. The entire city is filled with and surrounded by beautiful, old temples on all sides. You can spend at least an entire day exploring them.
The crown jewel of Chiang Mai temples is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the golden, mountaintop palace outside the city. To get there, take a tuk-tuk, join a tour or drive your own motorbike. As one who laughs in the face of danger, I figured driving a scooter couldn’t be too difficult, so we planned to head there on our own. With no experience whatsoever, I was surprised when they handed me the keys to a small motorcycle of sorts and didn’t even tell me how to start it. Driving up a mountain in traffic on your first day as a biker chick can be a bit scary, but I lived to tell the story. Regardless of your chosen transport method, you can’t miss this gilded monstrosity.
#2. A massage experience to write home about
Thailand is famous for it’s inexpensive massages (like $6 cheap), but the one at Chiang Mai Women’s Prison was one of the strangest experiences of my life. When I first heard about this from fellow travelers I met in Vietnam, I was understandably reluctant. Getting undressed, setting my purse down and letting a criminal frisk me didn’t sound like a relaxing experience at all, but I’m so glad I did it!
You’ll change into the provided traditional Thai clothing and then you’re in for quite an experience. Just when you reach a state of relaxation, a tiny Thai girl will suddenly use her legs to catapult you over her head into the air. Whether you’re a 220-pound man or a 90-pound preteen girl, they’ll have you doing your own version of a backbend and believing that you’ve just joined Cirque du Soleil. I couldn’t stop laughing.
I was afraid to ask what kind of crimes they’d committed, but as long as I didn’t get murdered, I felt good about giving these ladies work. The U.S. should consider more programs like this one to rehabilitate our ex-prisoners. Regardless of their past mistakes, keeping people busy, giving them purpose and a way to support themselves is always a good thing.
Chiang Mai and neighboring Pai are filled with dreamy yoga retreats. I took a lovely class at Yoga Kuukan.
Last but certainly not least, the highlight of anyone and everyone’s Chiang Mai trip is surely the elephants. There are many ways to go about spending time with them, but I highly recommend Happy Elephant Home, where many of the elephants have been rescued from abusive elephant organizations. Animal rights is a huge conversation among travelers in Thailand and the companies who allow you to ride elephants, especially with a chair installed are becoming less and less popular because of the harm they cause to these precious pachyderms.
We were picked up by van and transported to the jungles north of Chiang Mai where the elephants live. We spent the day feeding them bamboo and bananas, walking them and giving them a bath in the river. It was definitely the coolest thing I did in my entire two weeks in Thailand.
Some of my friends at home expressed concern when they saw my photos. Don’t worry folks, the local clothing was included in the experience. Regrettably, I have not traded in my normal clothes for a new Thai wardrobe, but I did purchase a cat family tank top.