Thailand: Chiang Mai

From Chiang Rai, I hopped on the Green Bus down to Chiang Mai, a city I’d really been looking forward to visiting. I arrived to a really great hostel that I’d been recommended by some guys I met in Laos: Stamps Backpackers, which is just outside the old city walls. It’s got a great sociable atmosphere, a common area and bar that opens out onto a terrace, the staff are fab, the food is good (if a little expensive) – and for me, it was the first place I’ve met a plethora of solo travellers my age as opposed to couples or much younger travellers. Would highly recommend to other solo travelers!

The common area at Stamps Backpackers

The afternoon I arrived, I wandered around the old city, weaving through some more wats and testing out a couple of bakeries (I think it’s safe to say I’ve put all my parasite lost weight back on…). I also went to the Lanna Folklife Museum which was an interesting exhibition on the heritage, traditions and practises of the Lanna people – an old kingdom covering parts of Northern Thailand, Laos, the Yunnan province of China and Myanmar. It’s a small but well-curated museum, worth an hour of your time in Chiang Mai.

Traditional lanterns at the Lanna Folklife Museum

In the evening, a group of us from the hostel went down to the Saturday night market. Which was a bit mental. They do a big walking street market Saturday and Sunday night which has some really good stalls, but being on the run up to New Year it was incredibly busy, so a bit more of a stressful experience than you might hope. Jostled by the crowd, we got split up into smaller groups as we grabbed some food from various delicious-smelling stalls – and some less delicious, as the hardy-of-stomach tried some fried crickets and grubs. Having just started to feel much better, I swerved the insect side order… I also bought a lovely little silver ring from a jewellery stall. When we’d had our fill of squeezing through very small spaces in a crowd we trucked back to the hostel. There are open-backed red vans in the city which act a bit like an unorthodox bus service, with no fixed route. For drives within the central area of the city they run at a fixed fare of 30฿ per person – they’re everywhere, pretty convenient and much cheaper than private tuk-tuks, so are a good way to get around when your destination is a bit far to walk.

The very busy Saturday night market

The next day was New Year’s Eve. A couple of the girls went for a massage or yoga, and I teamed up with a German guy to go and visit Doi Suthep, one of Chiang Mai’s supposed must-sees. It’s a temple up on a mountain that overlooks the city. It was a bit of an adventure to get there, as we needed to take two different red trucks; one to the base, then one up to the summit. Being a weekend (and we think, also a Thai national holiday) it was very busy, and there was even traffic at the last couple of turns to get to the top. We arrived, and it wasn’t quite what I expected. There were market stalls down the side of the road and up the (many) steps to the temple itself, and it was absolutely packed inside, both with locals and tourists. We managed to elbow our way around and admire the gold temple and its surrounding walls, before we went over to the viewpoint to look over the city. It was a bit hazy but you could still see miles – I hadn’t realised how high we were. It’s worth a visit for sure, but I would advise you go first thing in the morning to avoid some of the crowds!

Wat Doi Suthep
The view over Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep

We took some snaps, bought, by accident, an entire bunch of about 30 mini bananas as the vendor hadn’t understood us (or we hadn’t understood the system), and hopped on a truck back down to the city. We grabbed some lunch at a local place next to where they were setting up a square for a local New Years celebration, then got ourselves a rotee for the road back to the hostel – a kind of Thai crepe they sell from street stalls all over the city.

My rotee lady

In the evening, the hostel was doing a New Years party. I donned my (kind of) glad rags, pushed the boat out and even whacked on some mascara, then headed down to join. The chef at the hostel was fab. For dinner, they’d made some great teriyaki and pineapple chicken burgers with some Greek salad and potato salad. We wolfed down dinner, and I enjoyed my first beer since I went into hospital. The local beer, Chang, won’t be becoming my favourite tipple any time soon, but I thought I’d avoid spirits for my first drink – we’ll discount from the ‘pineapple vodka’ shot I was forced to drink later on…

The New Years Eve party at Stamps

At around 9pm, a group of us headed down to the old city gate round the corner from the hostel. Around New Years, local people light and release paper lanterns carrying a wish, for luck for the upcoming year. We’d seen hundreds of these floating in a steady stream across the sky above the hostel for a couple of hours, so we decided to go and get involved. We purchased a lantern, acquired a pen for writing our wishes on our lanterns, and went and found a spot to release them. They take a little while to light and fill with hot air enough to lift them, but we all managed to release ours without them crashing into any other people, trees or lampposts – which is more than can be said for some other people’s efforts… I couldn’t quite capture the thousands of lanterns in the sky properly in my photos, but it really was a memorable sight.

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Wishes let loose into the night sky, we went back to the hostel for a drink before we headed to a bar popular with travellers, Zoe in Yellow, for the midnight countdown. It turns out that the bar, and all the others next door, had teamed up to set up a stage and outside dance area in the street between them, and you could walk freely in and out of each bar, to different dance floors playing different music. It was much more of a set-up than I’d been expecting, and it was incredibly busy, but really good fun. They were a little late with with the countdown, but did a good crowd-pleasing light show when they caught up! We spent a few hours dancing and walked back to the hostel, where I slept like a log.

New Years Day started slowly, naturally, and I went for breakfast in the sun with one of the girls from the hostel – the Cat House has a great breakfast menu and it’s not as expensive as some of the other options round the old city. Feeling a little more human after a passion fruit smoothie and some very tasty French toast, we were planning on going to a pool but the sky clouded over and threatened rain. Instead, I met my German friend for a coffee and we sat in a café reading for a few hours.

In the evening, we went to the permanent night market for dinner, where they have an international food court – it’s a bit of a walk away from the old city, but its definitely worth a visit for one of your dinners in Chiang Mai. There are stalls of every kind of food you could possibly want, which made decisions quite difficult… I opted for some pork dim sum dumplings, followed by a peanut butter and strawberry-topped waffle. Yum. There was also a live band playing in the court who were really good – one of the stall vendors doubles as a saxophonist, and they played some great jazzy tunes!

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The next day I was excited to do one of the things which draws so many people to Chiang Mai: visit an elephant sanctuary. I’d done a lot of research as to which to go to, as some still allow elephant riding which I’m not really in favour of due to how they train the elephants to carry out commands. The hostel helped me with a recommendation for a small sanctuary about 45 minutes outside of the city: Maerim, which I would highly recommend. When we arrived, we were introduced to the sanctuary’s 5 elephants (4 adult females and one male baby), who have been rescued from riding camps, logging activity and the circus. We greeted them with a few sugar cane and banana treats before we all changed into traditional mahout (elephant guardian) clothing – short blue trousers and a blue jacket, because in the light, elephants see blue most clearly and vibrantly.

Embracing my inner mahout at Maerim Elephant Sanctuary

Dressed for the occasion, we loaded up some bags with more sugar cane and bananas and headed into the elephant area. They eat fast, and boy do they eat a lot. Each day, they consume about 10% of their body weight in food, and another 10% in water – somewhere between 150-200kg. They actually spend 16 hours a day eating and only sleep for 5 hours in separate bouts across the day – which must be hard work for each elephant’s mahout, who is with them 24 hours a day!

Feeding time – or just help yourself!

They’d soon polished off our food stocks and were ready for a bit of a post-snack walk. We followed them on a wander through the park, with the guide telling us a bit more about them as we walked (taking care to avoid swishing trunks and mud flying about!). Elephants are pregnant for 22 months, usually only have one baby at a time, and can’t have another baby for 3 years after birth, which is why it’s not often little ones are born! Young stay with their mothers for about 10 years before they go off by themselves – groups tend to be all females and babies, with the eldest female the leader, and bulls tend to live alone.

After walking, knocking down a few bamboo trees, breaking some sticks off other trees and having another good munch, a couple of the elephants seemed in the mood for a mud bath. A few of the group waded into the mud pool after them, spreading mud over their skin which helps to protect from the sun and cleanses against parasites. They then walked over to the little lake to wash off and have a roll around in the water – the baby in particular was a bit of a renegade here as we couldn’t see his head when he was playing under water, and then he’d pop up again blowing through his trunk!

Time for a quick splash

When the elephants had had enough of the water, it was time for us to say goodbye to them. We had a final rub as they dried out in the sun, and then headed to the (human) swimming pool to cool off ourselves. After changing out of our mahout gear, we were shown how to make traditional Thai noodle soup for lunch. I accidentally made mine far too spicy, but it was still delicious, so despite the sweaty face I powered on through!

My noodle soup, before I realised how spicy I’d made it…

After lunch we drove back to Chiang Mai. I changed and headed back to the old town to check out what might be the last temple I can appreciate for a little while – I’m feeling a bit templed-out! It’s called Wat Chedi Luang and is the oldest in the city, you can’t go inside but it’s quite impressive from the outside. It’s very tall and is visible from many parts of the old city as a very tall brick and stone structure with huge gold buddhas built into alcoves high up in the temple. It’s quite atmospheric, and very different to the highly decorated and colourful temples I’ve seen in Laos and Thailand so far.

Wat Chedi Luang

Having had my fill of temple vibes, I wandered back to the hostel – treating myself to an ice cream on the walk home as I was sweating like a piglet in my temple-appropriate clothing (trousers and a top to cover my shoulders and upper arms). I had a relaxed evening of dinner, reading and a spot of Netflix, to prepare for what was to be a very interesting journey to my next destination the following morning…

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 8, including more than one person who told me a traditional Thai massage is just a fancy name for getting beaten up.

Interaction was: enough to make me postpone my plans for the first massage of my travels. Maybe later. Maybe.

One Woman and her Backpack x

Follow me on Instagram @ellielfield

An addition to my Chiang Mai entry:

Between returning from Pai and flying to Bangkok, I passed a few more days in Chiang Mai. This was mainly spent relaxing, shopping, revisiting the battle with the Saturday and Sunday night markets and drinking coffee with my friend, but I also braved my first Thai massage. Despite the reports of borderline torture, ‘when in Rome’, and all that… it was quite the experience, so I wanted to share it!

Feeling a little apprehensive, I went to a place called Lila that had been recommended to me both by friends from home and by other travellers. There are 6 Lila parlours in the old city walls. It’s an enterprise run by ex-female convicts, who learned massage as part of their rehabilitation into society. When I arrived, I was shown to a little stool and basin where they washed and scrubbed my feet, before being given some massage wear to change into. They must have wondered what on earth I was doing in the changing room as I was in there for about 20 minutes trying to work out how to do up the massage trousers – the waist was about 3 times as wide as me and they’re fastened using some complicated folding and tying system which I didn’t manage to grasp, despite the diagram on the wall… With my best attempt and trousers just about holding up, I emerged, and was shown into the massage room. She started by pulling and clicking all my toes, and then proceeded with a hammering on my shins – which was probably the lowlight of the experience for someone with recurring shin splints! She continued to knead, stretch, bend, push, pull and poke me in all different directions, but I did actually really enjoy it after the shin episode. I certainly felt more limber at the end. It was definitely an experience – never have I had a massage before which involves the masseuse kneeling on your back! It was 250฿ for an hour, which I thought was really good value. An oil massage might have been more mellow, but I masochistically quite enjoyed the post-pain looseness. Go on, I dare you.

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