Thailand, Part 2: Chiang Mai

01/13/2013

This is one of a series of posts about our honeymoon to Thailand in December 2012, which consisted of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai, Phuket, and a long layover in Tokyo. Scroll down to the bottom to see pictures, and click on any of them to see an enlarged version. This was tapped out on my iPad, so forgive any typos or sentence fragments.

12/20 – Checked out of the Shanghai Mansion and headed to the airport. Goodbye Bangkok!

It was great to experience Bangkok… Once. While we enjoyed the experience of seeing Thailands largest city and staying in an ungentrified Chinatown, we could have spent less time there, and of we visit Thailand again, will likely skip Bangkok. If you’re planning a trip for the first time, you might be well off with three days there (shopping, sightseeing, Ayuthaya).

Flew Thai Airways to Chiang Mai. We’ve had friends who have taken the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and others who could not recommend against it strongly enough. As its our honeymoon and we wanted to have as much time in each city, we opted for the 1 hr flight :-)

Landed in Chiang Mai, and already we could tell the difference. The airport is set at the edge of the city, flanked by mountains, making for a gorgeous view. The smell and grime of bangkok was gone. We hopped in a cab, and headed to the eastern edge of the city to our hotel, Rimping Village. The cab driver was selling us hard on booking him as a private driver, but he was nice enough (and so cheap), that we figured we would call him if needed.

Rimping Village is a beautiful hotel, with a pool, restaurant (breakfast included in our stay), and private balconies. The staff was incredibly helpful, and while we were checking in, gave us a clear overview of the city, suggested possible excursions, and helped us with confirmations.

Chiang Mai, and the northern part of Thailand in general, is big on outdoors activities. Mountain biking, trekking, elephant rides, whitewater rafting, etc. One thing which I was excited to do was go zip lining, as I never had before. Alex is afraid of heights (afraid being an understatement), but was willing to push herself. We booked with Flight of the Gibbons, which is rated as the best activity in Thailand. They said they would pick us up at 6 AM (omg) the next morning. Alex later said she was so nervous about zip lining that she barely remembers a lot of the rest of the day.

We were looking for something to do, and booked a driver to take us to the Night Safari, which we knew little about but had heard people talking about. Before the driver picked us up we walked into the city and had dinner at Taste from Heaven, a vegetarian restaurant that was pretty good (note: at this point we’re starting to get bored with Thai food).

The driver picked us up and took us to the night safari. You’ll read and be warned about this mistreatment of animals for tourist reasons in Thailand. Here, the animals weren’t treated poorly, but many of them were in relatively small cages. The only real attraction is to take two trams around different areas of the park. Beyond seeing the animals at night, it was clear that the main draw of the trip is that most of the free-roaming animals (deer, zebras, giraffes) have become reliant on humans for food, so they’ll come right up to the tram and eat veggies that the park will happily sell you for a buck each. It was a fun experience heaving a giraffe put his head right up to us to get some food, but nothing like this would ever fly in the US. It ended up being one of the more expensive nights, as the night safari was 400 baht each, and the driver was another 1000 baht. We’d prolly recommend future visitors that they can skip this. The driver offered to take us anywhere else we wanted to go, but as we had an early wake up, we headed back to the hotel.

12/21 – what better way to celebrate the end of the world than go hurtling among the treetops? The hotel was nice enough to pack us cheese sandwiches, as we were leaving before breakfast. The van picked us and a few other couples up and took the hour drive to the mountains. On the way, they played us a video of people zip lining (that didn’t help Alex), followed by some Mr Bean sketches (completely random).

After winding along some steep mountain roads, we got to the main office, where they outfitted us with harnesses and helmets, and met our guides, Mike and Ton. We hopped back into the van, and drove higher up in the mountain to the start of the course. They gave us a demo of how we would be attached to the course, and most importantly, how we should land on the platform. They then hooked us in (the whole time we were up in the trees, we were always attached to something via our safety harness, and then when zip lining, attached 2X), and went on our way! There were two guides with us so there was always someone on the beginning and receiving end. Going along the lines (approximately 3km total, the longest line being 800m, which is a really, really long time to be flying), was a lot of fun. Other than enjoying the view and the feeling of flying, your only responsibility is to make sure you are set up for landing (at least pull your feet up). Ideally you land on the platform with a 1-2 step. Or the guide will catch you. Worst case, the tree stops you (that happened a few times). You then are hooked to the tree, and wait until the rest of your group is on the platform. The time spent on the platform was the most nerveracking for Alex, as we were a few hundred feet up in the air, standing on an open platform that wavered as the tree moved. But it ended up being a lot of fun, and even if you are scared of heights, just push yourself and do it! We did get to see some gibbons at the top of the mountain, before descending the valley along ziplines, rope bridges, and vertical descents. Pictures!

As much as we enjoyed it, we were relieved when we got back to the ground. They then took our group to see a local waterfall, and then to lunch (yay, more vegetables and curry). We were brought back into the city and dropped off at our hotel.

We had called our driver from the airport ride and asked if he could take us to a few sights on one of the mountain tops, and that he should pick us up soon after we were dropped back at the hotel. After some waiting, we came downstairs and found that he wasn’t able to make it, but he sent his brother to drive us around. His brother who didn’t speak a word of English, so the only way to communicate was calling our original driver and having him translate our messages. It ended up being a big clusterfuck, so we decided to have his brother just take us to Doi Suthep, a mountainside temple overlooking Chiang Mai. We had our fill of temples by now, but this one, so high on the mountain and lots of history behind it, was worth seeing. After that, we headed back into the city, and washed up at our hotel. We headed up the river to Riverside, an expat bar and restaurant, for drinks and dinner to unwind after the day.

12/22 – The only activity we had planned in Chiang Mai before departing, on friends’ recommendations, was the Elephant Nature Park. While the typical tourist activity is either an elephant show or riding an elephant, we were recommended to go here, where they rescue abused elephants and nurse them back to health, regain their trust in humans, with the eventual goal of releasing them back into the wild.

On the hour ride out there, we learned the backstory behind elephants in Thailand. After being a critical part or the formation of the country, including as religious objects and war machines, there were over 100,000 elephants at the turn of the previous century. Logging was the main activity they were used, and abused, for. When Thailand banned logging, elephants were left with nothing to do. With a decreased habitat, and no way for their keepers to afford them, the elephant population dropped by 95%. Tourism is now the only remaining activity, and elephants are still beaten and abused. The Elephant Nature Park was set up to bring in abused and orphaned elephants and provide a safe haven for them, sponsored by Eco-tourists.

We were able to feed the elephants, bathe them, pet them, and watch them interact with each other. While most of them had suffered years of abuse, including going through a painful training regimen that makes them completely subservient to humans, they formed their own herds, and traveled around the park with the rest of their herd. If a younger one gets scared, the older elephants will surround them. It was an amazing sight to see. Even the mahouts, themselves refugees from Burma, treated the animals with respect and positive reinforcement. While out there in the park, we were treated to a large vegetarian buffet, and had lots of free time to sit and relax, feed the elephants, or wander around the complex.

We headed back to the hotel, and out to the night market. First, we went to Whole Earth, where we had ome of the best indian food, ever. At night, particularly on weekends, the eastern part of Chiang Mai is turned into a sprawling street fair, with thousands of stands. We had bought very little on the trip up until now, so we used this as a chance to buy gifts, extra clothes we needed, and some condo decorations. It’s very easy to bargain with them like the shuks in Israel, however the prices are so low, it’s hardly worth the time more often than not (we walked away from a couple places because they wouldn’t drop their price another ~75 cents, as we figured out later).

12/23 – Cooking classes are another popular activity, and Alex found a vegetarian cooking class put on by one of the restaurants in Chiang Mai. We went to the market and were shown all the fresh vegetables and spices we’d be using, which could not have cost more than a few dollars total. We were looking closely at the spices being purchased, as we wanted to come back later and stock up for our own kitchen. We went back, and the instructor, showed us how to make 10+ dishes with many additional variations, all with the same handful of ingredients. We’re so used to dousing everything in heavy sauces and spices, but she showed how easy it was to actually cook traditional Thai food, with each dish only taking a few minutes. Coming back to the US, the hardest thing will be finding the appropriate ingredients, so were going to stock up on what we can.

After that, we walked around the city for a bit, had an afternoon snack at Love at First Bite, then headed back to the hotel to rest up. Early evening, we walked around the Sunday market, and headed to a dive Mexican restaurant.