Chiang Mai

by Anna

Johnny and I arrived in Chiang Mai about a week ahead of our friends and set out to explore the city and all it had to offer. After having been in the picturesque, sleepy town of Luang Prabang for the past couple of weeks, the congestion and modern conveniences of Chiang Mai were a little overwhelming for us at first. But we couldn’t complain after having some pretty legit chicken burritos (with avocado!!!), picking up new books at an enormous used bookstore, and re-stocking all of our toiletries at 7-Eleven.

Chiang Mai, the old capital of Thailand and the cultural heart of the country, is packed full of juxtapositions…ancient and contemporary, European and Asian, natural and industrial. Walking down the street, one might pass a gilded temple buzzing with orange-clad monks, a food stall hawking mango sticky rice, a funky shop featuring wares from an up-and-coming Thai designer and a fashionable boutique hotel – all in the same block. Intrigued by this eclectic mix, we covered a lot of ground over the next four days on foot, by bike and by scooter. Our favorite area to wander was within the old walled city where we’d pop in and out of temples (wats), explore the market and food stalls (with mango sticky rice being the stand-out) and stroll along the moat that creates a giant square around the city center. We also navigated the crazy night market that seemed to stretch on forever, rode up Doi Suthep mountain to Wat Phrathat, tried some restaurants in the Nimanaman area known for its hip boutiques, cafes and university crowd, and checked out the nightlife at some spots along the Ping river. We even had a chance to meet up with our friend from Luang Prabang, Joel, at the lovely Ginger & Kafe restaurant.

Moat and the remains of the city walls
Old meets new at Wat Chedi Luang Buddha
Tha Phae Gate
Saturday night market Kalare food center & night bazaar

After all this romping around Chiang Mai, we were feeling a little pooped and just couldn’t wait for all of our friends to arrive. On our expeditions through the city, we had discovered a Le Meridien right in the heart of the lively night market area. We decided to treat ourselves to a couple of luxurious nights with our Starwood points and get out of the less-than-stellar Funky Monkey guesthouse where we had been staying. We took full advantage of all of Le Meridien’s amenities (especially the pool!) and felt refreshed and ready for action when everyone arrived.

Enjoying the amenities at Le Meridien Like kids in a candy store

We could barely contain our excitement when we met our dear friends Tommy, Michelle, Greg and Hillary at our new boutique hotel, Aruntura (which, by the way, was amazing!!). My brother and Sheryl rolled in a few hours later and our happy crew of 8 was off to celebrate our first night together with dinner at the Mandarin Oriental.

Over the course of three days, we managed to pack in a lot of activities, including a pretty ridiculous Muay Thai fight, a harrowing scooter ride through burly traffic and one way streets and up Doi Suthep mountain for a return visit to Wat Phrathat, the insanely packed Sunday night market, some questionable but entertaining Thai live music along the Ping River and some delicious Thai meals, of course.

Our new spot along the Ping River at Aruntura Our first of many Red Car taxi rides
Sheryl lovin’ the Red Cars! Maneuvering the Sunday Night Market
Muay Thai
Look out Ladyboys! Ringside

We had no idea what was going on with this fight, but it was pure comedy:

The scooter gang
No lack of traffic in Chiang Mai Charging up Doi Suthep
The fearless scooter captains take a high-five break at a scenic point on Doi Suthep
Peter reenacting a picture that my dad took here in 1969 Wat Phrathat
Wat Phrathat
Wat Phrathat Wat Phrathat
A monk touching up the bright paint Greg & Hillary in front of a gold chedi
Tommy, Greg and Michelle lighting candles and incense in the inner sanctuary

But of all these activities, the most memorable and incredible experience came with our visit to the Patara Elephant Farm, where we were all “elephant owners for the day.” We first discovered Patara through a mutual friends’ blog, Two Packed Bags, a couple similar to ourselves traveling the world. We were so inspired by their post that we immediately decided that we would have to visit Patara while in Chiang Mai. Luckily, our friends were all in agreement, making it even more special to have the experience all together. There are many reasons why we felt Patara was more legitimate than some of the other “elephant farms,” which we had heard could be depressing and “circus-ey.” In addition to being “a Thai-owned and managed farm focusing on health-care and breeding management for friendly, beautiful and special elephants to produce healthy elephants to live on Earth,” Patara works with Chiang Mai university on elephant conservation and creates their interaction program so that visitors can really learn about the health and care of elephants.

Ready to start the day in our hand-made “elephant trainer” tops

In the morning, once our elephants “chose us,” based on personality – kind of like elephant Love Connection -, we fed our elephants bananas and bamboo and checked to make sure they were happy and healthy by reading their body language, checking that they had slept correctly the night before, checking to be sure they were hydrated (did you know elephants sweat from their toenails??) and the best part – checking their poop! Not only did we have to count their dungs, but we also had to squeeze the masses to check for fluid and tear them apart to check that all was digested properly. Luckily the poop didn’t smell – another sign of good health! We then dusted the dirt off our elephants with leaves and bathed them in the nearby river.

Snack time with our elephants Bananas and bamboo…yum yum!

Our first whiffs of the dung…surprisingly not smelly at all! See poop action sequence below:

My elephant, Boon Pak, was clearly enjoying his dust-off Peter’s elephant gets the royal treatment
Greg’s elephant enjoys a facial While Johnny’s elephant gets a full body scrub
Bath time would not be complete without a water fight!

After learning some basic commands in Thai (like “good boy/girl,” “go,” and “stop”), we watched a demonstration on how to mount our elephants and were then sent out to give it a go. This was both hilarious and a little intimidating as you either had to launch yourself over the elephant’s head, or do a one-footed trunk rise or a one-footed leg rise up to the top of the elephant’s head. Needless to say, it was a pretty awesome experience to sit atop our elephants for the first time, bare-back, with our feet tucked behind their warm flapping ears and feeling the prickly hairs on the top of their heads.

Hillary gracefully rises to her elephants head Tommy goes for the frontal launch
We ♥ our elephant friends!!!

We proceeded to take about an hour-long trek on our elephants to a waterfall where we stopped to feast on a ridiculously delicious meal of sticky rices and coconut treats. Once we fed our elephants our leftovers, we were able to swim with our elephants in the river! We were all a little apprehensive that we’d be crushed by the elephants rolling in the water, but after my brother hopped in and tumbled on his elephant harm-free, Johnny, Greg, Sheryl and I followed suit and were pretty hysterical the whole time we slipped around with our big wet elephants in the water.

We ate our delicious meal on banana leaves… …and drank Johnny’s Kool-Aid
Swimming with my main man, Boon Pak Peter & Sheryl
Peter goes “face first” into the action
Practicing Muay Thai So much fun

By the end of the day, I was pretty smitten with my elephant, Boon Pak. I felt so sad to say goodbye to this big, gentle, beautiful creature. We had all really bonded with our elephants who each had a very unique appearance and personality. In the morning when we first arrived, we were all a little scared to get too close to the massive elephants (even the babies!), and they all looked pretty similar to me. But after spending the whole day with our “elephant friends,” we were playing around with them like they were puppies. And each elephant could not have appeared more different from one another. Not only was the whole day extremely fun, but also very educational. It was a truly incredible experience with amazing friends in a magical place, and we were so grateful to be sent home with two CDs of awesome photos from the day shot by our Patara guide, Ben!!

Chiang Mai was a blast, but we were all eager to head south to the islands! Our entourage headed out with wheelie beasts in tow and headed for the airport – next stop: Koh Phangan!

Foot massages at the airport Good thing we pack light:)
Banana pancakes & card games kept us busy while we waited Finally en route to Koh Phangan!

3 Responses to “Chiang Mai”

  1. Anna, How is it that you had what looks to be the only elephant with huge tusks? I loved reading about your day with them — “just like puppies,” really?!


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