Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand. Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples. These include Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the city's most famous temple that stands on Doi Suthep, a mountain to the north-west of the city.
After a week in Bangkok it was time to travel north and visit the beautiful city of Chiang Mai. I took a sleeper train to get there and the journey took indeed the entire night. It was freezing inside the carriage due to the air conditioning, but apart from that the journey went smoothly and the train itself was very comfortable. After the sunrise while still on the go I looked through the window at the rural surroundings of hills and palm tree forests and the change of scenery got me very excited.
Finally, I arrived in Chiang Mai on a sunny morning in May. The station lies a bit further away east of Old City, so I needed to get a taxi to get me to the hostel. I ordered an Uber and it took me without any problems to my destination. From the air the center of Chiang Mai has a square shape and is surrounded by busy main roads. Inside that square the centre offers lots of temples, bars, restaurants and other interesting places to lose yourself in smaller alleys.
I stayed in a small, but nice hostel at the northern end of Ratchapakhinai Road. An unbelievably polite and lovely lady checked me in. I saw her every day during my stay down at the reception and she really made my days with her lovely way of being. I even had a photo taken with her and her cousin on my last day. Maybe the photo still hangs on their wall to this very day. Wouldn’t that be awesome!? Maybe one day I’ll be able to find out.
Exploring Old City
From then on I took lots of bike tours to explore the city centre. Chiang Mai has a small town feeling and is definitely very relaxing to get around. A huge number of temples adds to the variety of the experience. It’s a very picturesque town with no visible skyline - a complete opposite to Bangkok, in a good way. It’s such a great feeling of freedom if you don’t have to face the horrific traffic of a big city and just dive into the small streets on a bike in search of inspiring places. You never know what wonder awaits you around the next corner. In this way I discovered many small temples and nice bars.
After a few days I was joined by a friend with whom we visited Lost Hut at Moon Muang Rd Lane, a recommendation from another friend of mine from Germany who’d also been there before. Lost Hut is a really small bar at the crossroads of two side streets in the southeastern part of the town. We had some great fun there. Especially the girl at the bar was really fun to hang out with. We all had some shots together and we visited the place one more time during our stay in Chiang Mai. At some point into the night it started to rain hard, so we had to run back through the intense but refreshing storm - that was definitely fun too!
On another day I remember we went to Clay Studio Coffee in the Garden, a really awesome restaurant with a big outdoor seating area in the very southern part of Old City. My friend brought me there, so I was surprised to face the entrance into this hidden realm of fantasy. There were many terracotta statues of mythological characters around the inner court and the whole area conveyed a mysterious feeling. We had some initial problems with mosquitos at our table as we were sitting by the plants. But that didn’t spoil our awesome meal and the overall experience. I definitely recommend the place.
The ultimate highlights of my stay in Chiang Mai was the visit to the Elephant Sanctuary and to the Doi Suthep temple at the top of hills west of Old Town. Let me start with the Elephant Sanctuary.
There’s many tours around the Old City that offer trips to places where you can hang out with elephants in so called sanctuaries outside of Chiang Mai. We booked one such tour and on the next morning we were taken by the guide into a van together with a group of French tourists. After a bumpy 1.5-hour drive we reached our destination south of Chiang Mai. It was a huge outdoor camp somewhere by a river where elephants were moving freely, sunbathing or taking a dip in the water. After a short briefing and changing of clothes we could feed bananas to the elephants. It was cute to feel how their trunk grasped the fruits and moved them into their mouths. Such lovely animals they were. We had some fun interacting with them and taking pictures.
Next we could climb the elephants and ride them around a nearby forest and back to the camp. It was a great experience to sit on them and to get lost with them somewhere in the woods for a brief period of time. However, here’s some words of caution: it’s not a secret that in many places elephants are not treated well and are forced to engage in unnatural behaviours. Often they are not even offered enough freedom of movement or are simply chained to poles like some dogs. That’s why it’s important to only visit and support the elephant sanctuaries where they are offered a habitat in which they feel best.
Although we visited such a sanctuary, I’m still not sure whether elephants should be ridden in any case. I had these doubts in my mind for a while but only after visiting such a place myself I pay more attention to those things now. The point I’d like to make is this: please go only to elephant sanctuaries if you want to experience those amazing animals and only to those sanctuaries where elephants do not engage in unnatural activities, e.g. don’t need to perform tricks and are not restricted in their freedom of movement. In best case don’t try to ride them either. Just enjoy the interactions and the wonderful baths with them in a river - which takes me to the next highlight on our elephant sanctuary visit...
After we came back from the woods the elephants went for a bath to the nearby river. And we went with them. We were given sponges so that we could pretend to wash them - cause there’s no way those small sponges and the lack of our skills would have any impact on their thick skin and the amount of dirt they carry with them. The elephants just dip into the water and the whole body gets clean while we can move around them, stroke them and play with water. It was an amazing and refreshing experience.
After we were done with the elephants we were taken to the next stage of our tour which included a visit to a small local village, a waterfall lake and bamboo riding on a river. For that reason we needed to drive in the van to another location. First, we were taken to a local village and experience how locals live in the countryside. An old lady was sewing clothes and other fabrics with a traditional, wooden sewing machine. We could buy some items there, but I was just happy to experience the local, but poor life of its inhabitants.
Next, we walked through a forest to a small waterfall lake where we could rest, take a bath and enjoy the splendour of the beautiful waterfall. It was an amazing experience of natural environment and time seemed to pass very quickly. I wished I could have stayed longer.
At another river we needed to get on very simple bamboo boats - though the word 'boat' is probably too much here - and each boat had space for 3 guests plus the rider. The bamboo boats made their way very slowly along the beautiful, small, shallow river. We encountered some elephants being washed in the water, and many young people hanging out and listening to music at the various stations and docks. One of the boys even shouted to us “Welcome to Thailand”, and it was kind of a really awesome thing to hear, given that I was just into my second week in Thailand out of many more to come.
The whole river trips felt so primal and natural - retrospectively, I realise that’s what I’ve been missing in my life while working every day 9-5 in London. It was the connection with nature and the simplicity of being which I only got a glimpse of in the calm moments out there while exploring Thailand’s beautiful landscapes.
Once the bamboo riding was over, we had a lunch at the place where we disembarked and that was the end of our amazing trip to the rural areas near Chiang Mai. What a great memory! It took another 1.5 hours to return to our guesthouse in Old City. Our rider picked up another English-speaking tourist and his Thai friends who were coming from Chiang Rai, so we could have a nice chat and exchange ideas.
Doi Suthep temple
The last highlight of Chiang Mai was our motorbike trip to Doi Suthep, a temple in the mountain west of the city. For that purpose we hired a motorbike and rode to the hill. My friend was driving as he didn’t trust my driving skills. But I think he was exaggerating - my driving skills would have been just fine.
Anyway, not even entirely out of the city we were stopped by the Thai police and asked for the driving license. The silly thing was the my friend was driving and didn’t have a license with him, and I was sitting behind him as a passenger and I did have a driving license - what a silly situation! Anyway, after paying a penalty fee we could continue with our trip. At the end of the day, the police didn’t really care. I presume they just wanted to make easy money with tourists, as we were not the only ones who were stopped. In fact, many people around us were being halted all the time, because that was the main and most convenient road towards the hill temple.
Anyway, out of the city we started to make our way up the hill and the road had lots of curves. It was a bit challenging, but the feeling of being out there driving up a hill on a bike, surrounded by tropical fauna on every side with the wind blowing against my face (though I wore a helmet) - what a feeling of freedom that was! I will never forget that. I actually enjoyed the drive experience as much as reaching the actual destination.
Once we got there, the area was full of people and seller stalls. We parked our bike, went up the stairs and reached the entrance to the temple. The temple itself was an open area with a golden stupa in the middle, with lots of statues and other typical props you would expect to find inside a temple.
We walked around the little temple platform, surrounded by tourists and worshippers, took some photos and moved further to lower levels around the temple from where we could overlook all of Chiang Mai. It was a stunning view, though the city doesn’t have a distinct skyline. The whole area is flat, so you wouldn’t be able to tell what is where straightaway. However, it was still very impressive and worth getting so far up.
I will never forget that view and the joy of experiencing that place. It is my ultimate recommendation for your own Chiang Mai journey at some point in the future.