CURRENT LOCATION: Pai, Thailand
Chiang Mai had a LOT to live up to. Virtually every person we spoke to listed it among their favourite places in South East Asia. We heard rumours of cool weather, an atmospheric old city, amazing food, and friendly locals. No pressure Chiang Mai! It was off to a good start with an easy songthaew (the local shared taxi - basically a covered pickup truck) ride to our accommodation, and a nice big room with air conditioning to welcome us. After a shower to scrub the bus ride off us, we headed out for dinner.
Coincidentally, a friend of mine from a summer camp I worked at in USA in 2009 happened to be in Chiang Mai at the same time as us. Louise (from Manchester, holidaying in South East Asia for a couple of months) was staying right around the corner from us (exactly 750m away, according to the map). We spent the evening catching up at a great southern BBQ place. It was really cool to see her again after such a long time - she was definitely one of my favourite people from camp, and it was awesome to be catching up in such a fun place. Sadly we have since parted ways again (she's continued on to Laos), but we're hoping we might cross paths again before we all leave.
The next morning, both Zev and I were feeling a little jaded. We both had a pretty crappy sleep, and were generally feeling a little run down. In an attempt to pep ourselves up, we forced ourselves out of our room, and went for a wander through the old city.
Chiang Mai is the former capital of the Kingdom of Lanna, which has now been assimilated into the Chiang Mai region, with Chiang Mai remaining the capital. We were staying in the old city, which was surrounded by walls, and remains surrounded by a moat. The walls were torn down by the Japanese during their occupation in WWII, sections were rebuilt in the 70s to match photographs of how they looked before they were torn down. The old city is stunning, filled with cute sidewalk cafes, street vendors, independent clothing shops, and a temple on every block. We started by just wandering aimlessly, to see what we stumbled upon - something we usually really enjoy doing - but it wasn't long before the heat got to us. We parked ourselves in a cafe with a cold drink and consulted the map.
We noticed we weren't far from The Museum of Insects and Natural Wonders, so we decided to check it out. From the get go, alarm bells were ringing. The whole entryway was filled with weird wooden carvings and crystals, and more fake plants than I've seen outside a gypsy wedding. Nonetheless, we paid our entry fee, and the lady moved aside a broom stick blocking off the entry to let us in.
And then the crazy really started. Yes, there were insects displayed in the typical pin-through-the-body fashion in display cases on the wall. Stunning butterflies and creepy as hell beetles, they had it all covered. But in between all those things was the weird shit. Lots of new age quotes - on their own, not so terrible. Respect the earth etc - not a bad message. And then I found the paintings. The paintings of naked women. Hugging giant Mosquitos. Once the shock wore off, I had to fight the urge to buy one. I continued upstairs to see what else the museum had to offer.
The second floor showed off some more interesting mosquito based paintings, but no naked ladies this time, which was a let down. Once I reached the third floor, I had a little more context. The lady downstairs was an entomologist, and her husband is the 'world famous' (??) Mosquito Man. This 'doctor' (no mention of what he was a doctor of - perhaps he just changed his name to doctor?) studied mosquitos, and had basically started the museum as a place to display all his pro-mosquito propaganda. There was even another branch of the museum with even more stuff in it (no word as to whether the stuff was more insects on display, or more paintings of mosquito porn). It turns out that he'd contracted malaria as a child, and obviously he'd survived, which gave him respect for the mosquito. God knows why, but there you have it. Perhaps his malarial fever was left unchecked for too long? I really gave up on the place when I stood in front of a board saying that anti-malarials were bad for you and people shouldn't be taking them. They suggested that mosquitos were nature's way of transmitting immunity, providing vaccination, and that by taking anti-malarials, you were preventing nature from helping you. I restrained myself from beating the woman with her own broomstick on the way out.
I'm sure you all know how Zev and I feel about a good museum (although I won't pretend the air conditioning doesn't play its part in the attraction), so we headed to the Art and Culture Museum next. This was a great little museum with loads of displays on Lanna culture, and the history of Chiang Mai. After a quick break for a bite to eat (Pad Thai anyone?), we headed to the associated Folklife Museum, which displayed traditional arts and crafts from the area.
That evening, we decided to head to a game of pick up ultimate frisbee. For those of you who remember reading about Lisi, our friend who we met up with in Cambodia, she had been to Chiang Mai prior to seeing us, and had played some tournaments from one of the guys who runs Chiang Mai ultimate. She put us in touch with him, so when we arrived in Chiang Mai, we sent him a message (on Facebook, not like, Godfather-style sent him a message. No horse heads.). Ekk is a lovely guy, who promptly responded with details of all the frisbee going on while we were in town, and his list of the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
We walked about half an hour from our guest house to the Chiang Mai University fields. For those of you unfamiliar with pick up, you just turnip with a light shirt and a dark shirt, split into two teams, and play. It's good fun, and a great way to meet people. We spent a couple of hours playing, until it got too dark to see the disc, and then headed across the road for dinner. In another 'small world' episode, we met another traveller called Megan at pick up, am american currently living in Switzerland. She was in Chiang Mai for a short break after attending a conference in Bangkok. It turned out that she went to college in the U.S. with a friend of ours, and knows two of our friends from playing frisbee in Washington DC. Crazy. Anyway, it was nice to have a run around after so many months of no frisbee, and the Chiang Mai ultimate gang were incredibly welcoming and friendly.
Our long, active, sun-filled day left us pretty wrung out, so we had a late start and a bit of a lazy day the following day. After a breakfast so late it could really only be described as lunch (which made me feel better about having waffles with ice cream and caramel sauce - hey, it's not like I had it for breakfast!), we headed to the shared taxi stand to head up the mountain to Doi Suthep, the temple on the hill with amazing views over Chiang Mai. The shared taxis hold 10 people, and cost 50 baht (~2.50NZD) each if they're full. We were the first to arrive, so we sat and waited for other people to turn up. After about half an hour, we had 7 people. This is where the negotiations begin. Who knows how long it will take to find three more people. But the taxi driver doesn't want to go without the three extra fares. So he begins... "80 baht each and we'll go now" and so forth. It's kind of hard to collectively bargain with a bunch of strangers - all it takes is one person to cave, and everyone else basically has to go along with it. We eventually ended up paying 70 baht each (~3.50NZD). Acceptable.
What followed was some of the worst driving I've ever experienced. Steve, you know I love you, but being in a car with this guy was worse than driving out to Piha with you. Songthaews don't have a door at the back, so every time we flew around a blind corner on the wrong side of the road, I wasn't sure whether I should fear a head on collision, or falling out of the back of the taxi more. The ride nearly converted me to Buddhism, until I remembered that Buddhists can't eat bacon. No thanks.
We crawled out of the taxi at the top, and after a moment to decide whether I was going to throw up or not, we began the climb. 305-odd steps to the top. Which, it turns out, isn't actually that many. We paid our entry fee and headed in. The temple itself was very pretty, but super busy. Far more of a highlight was the incredible view back out over Chiang Mai. We spent about an hour wandering around soaking in the atmosphere (and I found a kitten, which ended up going to sleep in my lap, so obviously I couldn't wake it), and then made our way back to the taxi stand.
The girl we met at frisbee, Megan, said that she had paid for a return fare at the bottom, and didn't recommend it. She said they give you 2 hours up there, which is way too long. Instead, she told us to get a one way fare, then just grab another taxi when you're ready to leave. This sounded like great advice, so we followed it. Sadly it was not great advice. All the taxis heading back down were full of people who had paid for return fares. So there we were, stuck waiting for another taxi to fill up. Again, after about half an hour, there were only four of us. In the end, we agreed to pay 100 baht each (~$5NZD), and the other Italian guys agreed to pay the balance.
That night, we went to a really cute local vegetarian restaurant. The whole place was about the size of our bedroom at home, and there was one woman working there, taking orders, making drinks, cleaning up, cooking, serving food, settling bills - she was amazing. The place was full the whole time we were there (admittedly not hard - it only seated about 8 people), and she still managed to find time to have a chat to us about how crap Thai cheese is. We enjoyed a delicious pumpkin curry, and the biggest vege burger I've ever seen in my life.
On day three, we decided to tackle all the temples that the old city had to offer, but in a more organised fashion than on the first day. We downloaded a free walking tour, and spent the day following the map. The tour was suggested to take about 3 hours, but short of jogging it, and not actually going into the temples, I have no idea how you'd do it that quickly. It took us 6.5 hours, and we were wiped out at the end of it. We had, however, seen 1 monument, 1 school, 2 gates/walls, 2 houses, and a whopping 12 wats and temples. Not a bad day's work! We even managed to enjoy some icy drinks, some delicious food at a restaurant that was home to a cute dog and a big fluffy grey bunny (which I now know does not like to be picked up), and some yummy home made ice creams.
The next day was definitely the highlight of Chiang Mai. As most of you will know, we're pretty cautious about animal based tourism. There's an attraction in Chiang Mai called Tiger Kingdom, where you can hand feed tiger cubs and pat fully grown tigers. Despite this being about the most amazing thing I can think of, we avoided this place like the plague. There is no way you can pat a fully grown tiger if there's nothing shady going on. They're either drugged, declawed, detoothed, beaten... Or all of the above. We really wanted to see some elephants in Chiang Mai, but we wanted to be certain we were going somewhere that was doing it right.
Elephant tourism is big business in Thailand generally, but especially in Chiang Mai. There must have been at least 30 different places offering elephant treks, elephant bathing, elephant shows, elephant training courses... The list goes on. Eventually we settled on Elephant Nature Park. The big draw card for us? You can't ride the elephants, there's no show, and all of the elephants are rescued.
At 8.20am, the van collected us to drive us the 1 hour to the park. During this time we were shown a video explaining the rules of the park (hosted by none other than Lou from Neighbours!): basically, leave the elephants alone, you're there as a guest, they aren't there for your entertainment. Fair enough. We arrived, dropped off our bags, and were told to sunscreen and bug spray up, then go and wash our hands prior to feeding the elephants. The first thing I was surprised by was how big the place was. Huge. And home to over 40 elephants, not to mention 400 dogs and 200 cats (largely rescued following the tsunami in 2004), and a fair chunk of water buffalo. The other surprise was how busy it was. I was pleasantly surprised to find there were only 9 of us in our van. When we turned up at the park though, there were about 10 vans. Luckily, they staggered the day well, so it didn't feel overly crowded most of the time.
So our day began with feeding some elephants fruit. It was great fun watching the wolf down giant chunks of watermelon, their trunks searching for the next piece before they'd finished their last. Our guide told us about each of the elephants, their names, ages and back stories. Some had been used in trekking, but had to be retired after back, knee or hip problems. Some had been used in illegal logging, and were blind from being mistreated (apparently a slingshot to the eye is a good way to motivate an uncooperative elephant...). Some had stepped on land mines and had severe leg deformities. It was heartbreaking, but amazing to see these majestic creatures recovering, and basically spending their days hanging out with their buddies. Most of them would never be able to be released into the wild, as they had either lost their natural behaviours, or were never wild to begin with.
After feeding time was over, we wandered through the paddocks and met some more of the elephants. Basically, the elephants have free roam of the park, and various staff members and volunteers follow them around to make sure they're okay, and that the park guests are safe. We met and patted several residents, including one elephant sporting a big rose earring. At first I was taken aback, but our guide explained that she had previously been tethered by her ear, so she had a hole there, and her mahout (basically her personal keeper) kept trying to find things to put in the hole so it didn't get caught and tear. Eventually he figured out that she seemed to like it when he put flowers in there, so he made her an earring. Also worth mentioning, this was the oldest elephant at the park at the impressive age of 80 years old!
After a delicious and enormous lunch, we headed down to the river that runs through the property. One family of elephants were going for a swim, including a young male elephant. It was really special watching them splash and play in the water. It sounds cliched, but you could tell they were really happy. Eventually all but one of the elephants got out of the water, and the one that was let started slapping the water with her trunk. The guide explained that she was an older elephant that loves that water, and basically that was her way of saying, "But I don't wanna get out of the bath!!! Come back guys!!". Eventually she gave in and followed her friends.
Next we went to visit another family of elephants, which included one 'mother' elephant, an teenage female, and a young male. While the mother wasn't actually their mother, she had more or less adopted the younger elephants, and was apparently doing a great job of looking after them. The mother and the teenage girl live in the park, but the young male was found in the jungle, caught in a snare trap. He was only staying in the park while his leg healed, and the would be returned to the jungle.
After a pit stop to see another baby male and his young female friend playing in a paddock, we had to take a quick break to shelter from the 10 minute thunder and lightning storm that passed through. Then, we headed down to the river to 'wash' the elephants. At other places,this would mean riding the elephants bareback, then having them lie in the water while you scrub them down. Instead, here, the elephants stand in the river with a basket of fruit in front of them. They eat the fruit, and pay no attention to anything else going on around them. Meanwhile you have a great time throwing buckets of water over them while they ignore you!
After a quick afternoon snack of iced tea and biscuits, we had another session of elephant feeding before hopping in the van to head back. It was such an amazing day that both Zev and I were asleep within minutes of the van setting off, and didn't wake up until we were back in Chiang Mai!
We quickly changed, and headed out for another evening of frisbee (with a little pit stop for a coke and a snickers bar to give us some energy). We played another great game, this time heading to a local student market for dinner and a little perusing of stalls. Some highlights included snail masks (face masks made with some kind of snail-based concoction to lighten your skin), and basically every tee shirt there, which featured a crazy animal print (usually a cat, owl, or wolf) with a seemingly random word printed on top. We bid farewell to our new frisbee friends and headed back to our guesthouse.
We hadn't made any plans for our last day in Chiang Mai, so we headed to a district which Ekk had told us had lots of cool cafes and shops. We didn't really manage to find any of them, but we did find a shop that sold film for my camera - yay! We also managed to find a spot to grab a cold drink while we decided on our plans for the rest of the day. We settled on another trip to the movies, this time to see the long awaited (for Zev at least) Jurassic World. For the record, it was great! After making ourselves sick on movie nachos and caramel popcorn, we walked it off at the night market. Filled with more stuff than anyone could ever possibly want or need, it was bustling.
This morning we headed to the bus station to come to Pai. We were a little nervous, having read about the horrendous road between Chiang Mai and Pai. Apparently involving 746 turns, it was rumoured to be so bad that it was recommended you take motion sickness tablets and a plastic bag. The logo of our guesthouse in Pai is a stick figure throwing up (a reference to the road, not booze - Pai is a pretty quiet little town). We did end up taking motion sickness tablets, but I have to say, the road reminded me so much of New Zealand roads that I don't think we would have needed them! Far worse was the lack of space in the crowded mini van... Three cramped and windy hours later, we arrived in Pai.
Lots of love,
S & Z
(Original post date: 15th June 2015)