A cool grey mist hung over a jungle covered valley as I looked out the window for the first time after dawn broke. I couldn’t help but think “this is more like it” as I watched the scenery roll by. I’d purposely booked the later night train to Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north as it didn’t get in til just after noon and I was told I’d get some solid scenery time. That was certainly the truth.
That morning had started lazily at the old home base with a leisurely wakeup, nothing to pack as I hadn’t bothered unpacking and a slow breakfast. Rather than leave the bag at the hotel this time I hopped a cab (after dodging another scammer trying to not use his meter and charge me 5x) to the train station and left my bag in their left luggage. Large signs and verbal warnings reminded you to not have any food in your bag as they made no guarantees a rat wouldn’t knaw its way in… good to know. I didn’t really have anything planned and just did some further bangkok exploration in a direction I hadn’t gone before… sat in a park and read for a while… and gave in to a serious craving I’d had for fries (and a desperate need for some A/C on a muggy +36 day) and went to McDonalds. One giant fries, a ‘samurai pork’ burger and a pinapple pie made for my shame meal and somewhat handily given the train plans they also gave me two random kellogs cereal bars as some sort of promo. I set off for 7/11 to finish stocking up for the train and equipped with a roll of oreos and some juice/water I hopped the metro back to the train station to make sure I wasn’t late.
The train itself was objectively worse that the last one. A site had lied to me and told me I’d be getting the fancy new second class a/c car but in fact it an even older one than last time with only squatty potties. On the plus side I’d booked well ahead and had a lower berth (bigger bed and the window) and the beds were set up when we got aboard due to the 10pm start time. I got comfy, pulled my curtain shut to cocoon myself and watched the city go by until I finally gave in to the heat of the day and let myself nod off, only waking when we stopped and took on the person in berth on top of me and again at one point in the middle of the night where the train staff felt the need to have a 3am shouting match. At that point I dozily remembered the sleep headphones I’d bought for this purpose and it wasn’t until the sky started lightening outside the window that I woke again.
It was an interesting experience and definitely more what I was hoping for from my thai train travels. We rolled through a variety of narrow passes and tunnels, stopped at villages of various sizes and saw our car’s porter put on and take off his uniform so many times (he only wore it at stations where a supervisor might be I’m guessing?) In between lay many a jungle covered valley or rice laden cultivation area. There were definitely a lot of views that looked like establishing long shots in a vietnam war movie and I somehow kept expecting Fortunate Son to start blaring over my headphones.
My upstairs neighbour eventually woke but disappeared off to join her husband farther back where I guess someone had gotten off and left a spare pair of joined seats. Unfortunately she left her crap all over the bunk at the time so it was an hour before the porter tracked her down so he could swap my area back to chairs (much comfier for windowgazing.) One poor sod nearby on an upper bunk had rip van winkle of a frenchman below him who didn’t get out of bed until around 11. I myself kept meaning to go grab something at the restaurant car but never got around to it before we pulled into chiang mai just after 1.
I have a general rule about never hopping in the first cab or listening to the first people to talk to you after getting off a bus or train. In this case though, the travel info desk (clearly a taxi company) was offering free reasonable looking maps, and when I asked for one I was quoted a not terrible price to get to my guest house (though more than I should have paid.) In the end I’m fairly glad I got someone who at least knew where the place was though as the old city in Chiang Mai is definitely a warren of wildly diverging back lanes all of which have a guest house/hotel/hostel in pretty much every building.
The history of the city is an interesting one as it’s served as varying level of capital for Northern Thailand and empires based here, was an important stop on various Chinese trade routes back in the overland days and is also where most of the Teakwood came from before logging it was banned. The resulting mishmash of architecture is really neat. The old city itself is still surrounded by a moat and a few sections of wall as well as four gates. Temples are everywhere, even by Thai standards and are impressive even after seeing so many this trip.
My friend Kym reminded me that part of the benefit of doing this is remembering where you stayed/what you did if you like it (and also so your friends can benefit.) So in that spirit let me talk about the Sri Pat guesthouse in the old city which definitely had the feeling of a structure half converted from a onetime Teak baron’s home. For less than $50CAD I was given a spacious king sized bed room, ensuite bathroom and small balcony. Incredibly friendly staff who managed to get me a 15% discount off my cooking class. Decent location too as while it was in the old city it was also close to the street to walk down to the night markets and some of the restaurants I wanted to try. It also has a small pool in what can be a very very hot place. Heartily recommended if you’re in Chiang Mai, which you should be as it’s an amazing city.
My main concern about coming to Chiang Mai was the heat as well as warnings that the smoke can be awful in March from a combination of wind currents and the mountains/valleys funneling agriculture burning into the city. Thankfully while hazy it was never a thick blanket during my visit. Even better, while definitely hot (36 one day 37 another) it was a bit less humid than the worst I’d seen so felt a bit more bearable. After checking in, grabbing a post-train shower I headed out to explore the old city/find some food… which turned into a bit of a disaster at first. I’d read a couple places that the best place to get the local specialty of Khao Soi (curry over egg noodles and chicken topped with crunchy noodles/pickled radish) was the city’s “halal street.” Unfortunately I missed the part where all those places closed by 5pm and I arrived at 5:30. My backup plan was thankfully open and I devoured a big plate of burmese noodle stew and tomato salad. I ended up at a weird mexican (apparently super popular in Thailand atm?) bar to end the night listening to a pretty talented guitarist.
A friend of my mother’s had recommended the Zabb-e-lee cooking school she’d attended about a month ago and after looking into it I decided to book it as well and ended up in the morning class. Slightly bigger class this time but definitely manageable for the instructor Kis and her assistant. We had a few brits, an american, a german/spanish couple now living in south africa and a few south koreans. I was the last one picked up in my van which promptly did a big elaborate circle through some lanes then stopped at the food market one lane down from my guest house that I’d looked around the night before. As she introduced all the ingredients I tried and failed to not be a know it all but I can’t not answer a question I know the answer to when the instructor is looking at me. After giving folks a chance to look through things on their own for ten minutes we bundled back into the van and headed to the school.
The biggest appeal about this school was that you could choose your own menu to make (you should do this one too Kym.) When were at the market Kis made a note of who wanted to do what and bought the appropriate things. I ended up making Khao Soi before I’d actually had it in town and it was phenomenal (all the other dishes were too but that was the star.) Much like the first school everyone had their own wok station and prep board and she gave everyone individual attention. I apparently made the best Tom Kha Gai so yay me :p Because everyone had differing curry desires we actually ended up pounding 4 different pastes which was interesting seeing how similar they really are except for a couple key ingredients. If I was comparing the two schools I’d say the Bangkok one had slightly better instruction in terms of start to finish cooking but both were fantastic and being able to do the Chiang Mai specialty was fantastic.
I gave in to the lure of the swimming pool, a beer and a book as I digested an awful lot of food for pre-1pm. The pool was nothing special but refreshing and I hopped in and out a couple times while reading. I knew it was time to do some exploring that afternoon though as I had a notion that after the next day’s activity there’d likely be a nap in the offing. So that’s what I did. I wandered the streets of the old city checking out the various temples and pseudo colonial architecture, scouting out some souvenirs and soaking up the vibe of Chiang Mai. I ended up at a shop that sold handmaid paper and local art and picked up a print that I really liked that I hope manages to get home reasonably whole but it’s always a crapshoot.
Via a long circuitous route I ended up down at the various giant night markets by the river. This one is definitely a more tourist focused one that the others I have described this trip with most of the space dedicated to stall after stall of the same souvenir-y stuff, but deep in the back is a giant food court full of great options at ridiculous prices and I ended up getting a giant thing of pad thai (since I hadn’t had it in ages at this point) and a drink for under $2.50. Circling around the stalls I managed to pick up a few things to bring home that I liked the look of and haggled as much as I could stomach. It was a reasonably early night though as I had a date with some pachyderms come morning.
Ethical elephant encounters are thankfully a growing trend in Thailand though there are also a number that purport to be sanctuaries but really aren’t, or at least not in an entirely altruistic fashion. Sadly the one that is supposedly best of all was thoroughly booked even when I looked the week before so I chose another that both my book and the interwebs said was good. I was relieved when we were picked up in a van, though these ubiquitous tourist conveyances aren’t what I’d call super safe, it definitely beat a 1.5 hour trip in a pickup truck bench in traffic fumes. And that was before we did the snaky road up the mountain into the boonies north of the city. Talking with someone back at the hotel later I heard that a few people had been sick on their elephant trip as a result.
I had chosen to do the full day excursion and was joined by a German woman, a Spanish couple living in London and a young Swede. The day started with a discussion about the background of the elephants (some rescued from circuses, some former logging camp working ones,) the differences between african/asian elephants and a discussion of traditional herbal remedies they use to attempt to keep them healthy. Once we’d done the education session our guide “call me Woody” loaded us up with shoulder bags full of teeny bananas and took us off to meet our new friends.
We first met a mom and her three year old calf as they came back into the compound from a walk in the hills with their handler. The english wasn’t the best but I gathered the handler in this case was one of the traditional hill tribes that had made their livings from working with elephants and who have been very hard hit by the industrialization of the more remote areas. His particular elephant had died of old age but he wanted to keep working with them so he came here. Our new elephant friends knew damned well what was in our shoulder bags though and if we went too long without offering some those powerful trunks were snaking their way into the bags looking to help themselves. Academically you know from watching nature shows just how deft they are with their trunks but it’s still somewhat shocking to see them snaking around with them or getting in a tug of war with them.
Eventually we met the rest of the herd and spread some more bananas around. Their was one very large female, one smaller older female and the younger mom along with the two little ones. We fed them and patted them, made them up some balls of food to hide their medication (the vet was there that morning) and watched a few of them play in the watering hole before we went for our own lunch. Lunch was extra interesting getting to talk a bit more with my fellow visitors. I am always in awe of what amazing english swedes speak and Ariel was no exception, in fact everyone else there assumed she was a yank. We all talked about where we’d been and where we were going. She’d been gone four months but like me was winding down towards the end of her trip. The spanish couple were in their first week of three but weren’t sure where they were going next other than diving at some point so I tossed some recommendations their way and in return they recommended the lovely resort I’m currently writing this in at my next stop Sukhothai. Lunch itself was appropriately enough deep fried bananas along with fried rice and an odd apple salad. We were all a little confused why they’d asked if we were vegetarian given there was no meat.
Phase two of elephant party was the slightly more worrying part as we followed our guide down to the elephant mud bath. They gave us some other tops to throw on which was appreciated though I’m pretty sure basketball mesh sleeveless is a look in my top 3 should not wears. While ostensibly we were coating the elephants with mud the various handlers delighted in throwing mud at us as well. Here’s hoping there wasn’t anything too energetic bacteria wise in there as I ended up pretty covered. I should count myself lucky that I wasn’t our twenty year old cute swede (Emily) though as the handlers had obviously taken a shine to her and were absolutely plastering her with mud and at one point even energetically threw her into the deep end. Absolute favourite moment was the three year old struggling to pick up the hose pipe with her trunk, finally succeeding and looking absolutely joyful as she poured water into her mouth with it until mom took it away. Eventually everyone got tired and the elephants were climbing out to go rub themselves in the sand, then on to the watering hole to wash up (both people and elephants.)
We were all very thankful they had proper showers to at least get the first layer off though I knew my very first act upon getting back to the guest house was going to be harnessing that water pressure to scour everything off completely and finally feel like all the grit was out of my hair. Emily was apparently in a hostel with terrible showers and was resigned to staying in there for 2 hours once back. Once everyone was dressed we said our goodbyes to our new friends both human and pachyderm and hopped back in the minivan along with some extra guests that were finishing up their overnight stay program. Everyone in the back of the minivan was out by the time we’d gotten down the first hill and I only stirred when the last hard turn onto the highway banged my head against the window.
I’m thankful I went and it was an amazing experience to meet those wonderful animals. There is definitely a sense at this place that they are treated well though they could definitely use more space to expand. Talking with the overnight folks we got a decent picture that while they are penned in a smaller area at night (for their safety lest they get out of protected area) they stay in whatever family groups they are comfortable with. While it’s not perfect it’s a better life for these former work elephants (and their handlers) than begging on the streets or being forced to cart logs or tourists through the hills.
The shower was glorious (and long) but I had one more souvenir I wanted to buy and another bowl of Khao Soi to acquire so I took one last trip out into the streets of Chiang Mai that evening. I’d taken a look online and though I’d again missed the daytime only places there was one reasonably close by curry shop that ranked in the top 3 of a few different “best khao soi in CM” lists. It was indeed a tasty place and popular with the locals, it wasn’t until I mentioned it later while having a beer with a brit that spent his winters here that I found out apparently Bourdain had visited it on one of his shows.
Sadly that marked the end of my time in Chiang Mai as I have a couple more things I want to fit in and I’m down to my last few days over here. I would definitely dedicate more time to the city next time as despite being a biggish city it felt very down to earth and friendly. That and there are so many other sights around town and day trips that I’d like to see.