How can you visit Thailand and not play with the elephants! Honestly we flew to Chiang Mai just for the elephants, which were totally worth it. It was also a bit cheaper here than in Bangkok, so we spent some more time here to relax.
We stayed at the Shewe Wana Boutique Resort & Spa, and although it wasn’t super cheap, it was completely worth it to end our time in SE Asia in a wonderful resort rather than a hostel. They even picked us up from the airport in a van when we arrived. Since we stayed more than 4 nights, we had a special couples’ massage included in our price. The resort also included van transport to the Old City ad breakfast every morning.
If you look at any map of Chiang Mai, there’s one big square which are the walls of the Old City. Everyone will recommend that you stay within the square, since all the attractions within the city are in the Old City. However, I found that the cheaper but nice resorts are slightly outside the city. Our resort wasn’t too far away (it was a 20 min walk to the main wall, but the van transports helped a lot), and it was wonderful being slightly away from the dust of the main city.
Most of the attractions within the Old City can be seen in a day, even if you go at a leisurely pace. There are a lot of temples, just like in Bangkok, and they aren’t as strict as the Grand Palace. Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang are the main temples within the city, and we meandered our way through coffee shops and street markets. There was some great food, and cheap massages almost on every street corner.
Out of every city we visited, Chiang Mai had the best night markets! We especially enjoyed the Sunday and Saturday night markets, which were slightly outside the main walls. They also had a daily night market within the main walls, which included a delicious food market.
One of the days, we made our way up the mountain to the main temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The monastery was established in by King Keu Naone to enshrine a piece of bone said to be from the shoulder of the historical Buddha. The bone shard was brought to Lanna by a wandering monk from Sukhothai and it broke into two pieces at the base of the mountain, with one piece being enshrined at Wat Suan Dok. The second fragment was mounted onto a sacred white elephant that wandered the jungle until it died, in the process selecting the spot where the monastery was later founded.The terrace at the top of the steps is dotted with breadfruit trees, small shrines, rock gardens and monuments, including a statue of the white elephant that carried the Buddha relic to its current resting place. Before entering the inner courtyard, children pay their respects to a lizard-like guardian dragon statue known as ‘Mom’. We saved money by taking one of the red taxis, which are open-backed and non-air conditioned. I think we got ripped off most of the time, because we obviously weren’t local and didn’t have the bargaining finesse that many of the Chinese tourists seemed to have. Uber was much cheaper, but it was difficult calling one since we didn’t have service except when connected to wifi.
One of the days, we took a cooking class at Zabb e Lee Cooking School! They offered full-day classes, but we chose to do the morning-only class, which was more than enough. The company picked us up from our hotel at 8:30 AM and the group of us went to a morning vegetable market to shop for our groceries. Our instructor taught us what was what, and which spices to pick out. We then went over to the cooking school, where we had a great time learning to make pad thai, curry, tom yum soup, and multiple other courses! We were able to choose which dishes we were able to make, and there was a variety of vegetarian and meat options. This was the BEST meal we’ve ever had! I do enjoy cooking anyway, but even M enjoyed the class. At the end, we made a lot of new friends, and took away a recipe book for the dishes we made. Highly recommend, even if it seems a bit pricey at first!
On our last day, we had made reservations for the Elephant Nature Park ahead of time online. There are only a few elephant sanctuaries – other companies will sell tourists elephant riding! I’ve seen many of my (educated) friends go elephant riding as well…DO NOT GO ELEPHANT RIDING! The elephants are not supposed to bear the weight of humans, and they’re usually abused in the camps. ENP rescues elephants from logging camps or street performances and lets them roam around in the sanctuary, which allows tourists to interact with them peacefully. We bathed and fed the elephants and learned a lot about the elephants the sanctuary rescued. To be honest, while it was a wonderful experience, especially touching and bathing them, the pacing was a little slow and there were a LOT of groups. Also, while ENP is a sanctuary, I still things some things were done for the benefit of the tourists and not for the elephants. Only if they’re allowed to roam freely and tourists able to view them from a distance would it be a true sanctuary, I think. But some of the elephants posed for pictures, etc, so I still think there is some sort of elephant manipulation happening…but still, a much bigger step up from the elephant riding camps, and the parks bring a lot of awareness to tourists who will hopefully champion elephant conservation.
Chiang Mai was full of good food, great massages, and really friendly people. Thailand was certainly my favorite country, even though it was so hot all the time. It didn’t monsoon a single time, even though it was technically monsoon season! And the heat wasn’t too unbearable since we were able to escape to our hotel whenever we wanted. And with that, we finished our whirlwind tour of SE Asia and flew back to the United States. We had a long layover in Seoul, and we were trying to spend some time there. We did make the 1.5 hour trip into the city from the airport, but it was monsooning, and it was a national holiday! So we explored some malls, ate what little food was open, and went back into the airport. Actually, Incheon Airport had plenty to keep us entertained – it’s probably the best and biggest airport in the world! – so we weren’t so sad about it especially since we were so tired from our layover. But first, a stop in Seattle before starting our new life in Boston!