A comfortable yet extremely cold overnight bus brought us to the northern capital of Chiang Mai. When taking buses in South East Asia definitely layer up because the air-con is always on full blast and you might as well be in the arctic. We also learned that most of the toilets in Thailand are of the squatting variety and instead of toilet paper there is water to spray on your bits. At first I was grossed out but you know what, it works and seems hygienic enough. Anyways once we arrived in Chiang Mai we went for a walk and found a good place to stay called Fang Guesthouse. And our arrival in Chiang Mai could not have been more perfectly timed because we were just in time for the Loi Krathong festival (Festival of Lights). In the evening the sky was filled with lanterns and we even released some of our own. The idea is that you release your bad luck by both releasing lanterns and floating small lotus-shaped boats down the river that are covered in flowers, incense and candles. The rive was just a sea of these floating shrines.
Chiang Mai is full of markets where you can by absolutely anything, our favourite was all the fruit. The mangostine was the best and it tastes similar to a lychee. Walking the streets is an activity in itself and it was interesting to see such a cross-section of people. There were a lot of monks and those training to be monks walking everywhere.
We did a cooking class while we were in Chiang Mai, which is a definite must-do. It was a lot of fun and a great way to learn more about Thai cuisine. Another great activity is to check out some Muay Thai boxing, it’s an incredibly popular sport here and a lot of fun to watch! Its cheap to go to and we had a great time ringside with some Chang beers.
To get a good view over the area we headed up to a temple called Doi Suthep, which is on top of a hill on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. I promise that all the stairs are definitely worth it. The colour gold was everywhere and it provided a breathtaking view over the city.
After a few days in Chiang Mai we decided to venture a few hours further north to the town of Pai. We immediately liked it as soon as we arrived and checked into a wooden guesthouse near the river. It’s a very relaxed town with a strong hippie vibe. For a small price we hired some tubes and went down the river which was a great way to see the countryside and locals fishing.
While in Pai we also hired some bicycles to explore the area (and to get some much needed exercise!). There were a lot of hills so we were pretty entertaining to watch puffing and sweating profusely as we reached various lookouts. The views were definitely worth it, a small village on one side and the lush jungle and mountains on the other.
Part of the reason that we came to the north was so that my travel buddy Sophie could do some Veterinary practical work at an elephant hospital. She was based at Mae Taeng Elephant Hospital a couple of hours out of Chiang Mai, so of course I tagged along for a few days. The park where the hospital is located is nice and well run. If you are going to see elephants while in Thailand then do your research and go where they are treated properly. There are so many places where these beautiful creatures are exploited. The difficult thing about elephants in South East Asia is that there is not enough natural habitat left for the elephants to live and so very few can actually survive in the wild. It was really great to interact with the elephants and to meet all their handlers. I loved hosing them down with water, feeding them lots of bananas and coconut, and watching the babies attempt to get into the tubs of water.
While here we stayed at a home-stay with our lovely host called Pi Fan. She took us around the tiny village and introduced us to lots of different foods and some delicious tea (Hongcha). Around the village there are also a lot of water buffalo and their babies. Sophie had to do some de-worming while I cuddled the babies, great deal!
Overall our time in Northern Thailand was spectacular. I highly recommend that any trip to the country includes some time up here. Cost wise it was pretty similar to what we spent in Bangkok because we did do a lot of activities. You’re looking at NZ$60 (US$40) per day.
Editor’s Note: Visited Thailand in 2012, updated in 2017.