Chiang Mai – the rose of the north. A nickname that certainly holds true for this cultural metropolis. The first impressions I hear from group members are comparisons to unsavoury Bangkok (which I think is a little harsh, I kinda like the place!), but I must admit Chiang Mai is a breath of fresh air after the hectic, smoggy capital of Thailand. Surrounded by a crumbling stone wall used to keep out invading armies from ancient enemies, the Old Town is a charming maze of side streets and back alleys full of markets, restaurants, guesthouses and massage parlors to tend to a traveler’s every need.
Outside of the Old Town, Chiang Mai is a sprawling city which has a more laid-back feel than many big cities in Thailand. For an excellent view over the city, the group headed up to Doi Sutep, a famous temple up on the mountain of the same name. There we witnessed amazing Thai architecture and many Buddhist rituals, including several group members being blessed by real live orange-clad monks for safe travels. For the more adventurous in the group, a short half hour ride out of town brought us to a tiger kingdom (for all your tiger petting needs), a snake farm (if you can stand the wriggly things), beautiful botanic gardens and orchid farms, an extreme sports centre (complete with bungee jumping, zorbing, paintball, and more), and my personal favorite, the unforgettable elephant show! (Have you ever seen an elephant paint an elephant on canvas? It’s an experience you can’t miss!)
Another unmissable opportunity for which Chiang Mai is famous are the multi-day treks you can take out into the jungle north of the city to visit some of the many hill tribe villages and see how more rural villagers live. This was definitely the highlight of our trip up north, getting out of the city life and embracing life in the jungle to the fullest with elephant rides, authentic bamboo rafting, and even sharing a few Burmese cigars with the locals over shots of “happy water” (aka rice whiskey moonshine). I tell you, you gotta be careful with that stuff, or you might forget where your bungalow is and wake up in the village kitchen surrounded by tribesmen cooking their morning coffee! …Oops. I was told not to worry, because even though happy water comes with the saying “happy tonight, not happy tomorrow”, we were through with our hikes for the next day and we could relax and cruise down the river on our hand made bamboo rafts, made right in front of our eyes!
A Thai tribeswoman preparing our meal.
Chad, a Free and Easy leader trying to fit in as a tribesman…or something.
Well, that was a bit of an overstatement, as we found out the next day when we boarded the rafts and all of the men were handed 12 foot bamboo poles, and told that not only would we be standing the whole way down the river, but we had to help pole and avoid rocks in the rapids along the way!! Understandably, I was a bit nervous, considering my sense of balance is pretty bad on dry land. But 15 minutes in, I felt like a natural, steering our raft at the instruction of our guide, who was pulling his own weight at the front of the raft. A few adrenaline filled hours later, we were sad to disembark our bamboo armada and hop back in the vans down to Chiang Mai. On to the next leg of our journey!