The islands definitely gave us that relaxing vibe we were looking for. It was nice for a while to just stroll onto the roads in Chaweng, and to just ‘chill’. We had enjoyed every minute of the Full Moon Party, as crazy as it was, along with the amazing food on the islands and the Thai people, with whom we had shared plenty of laughter and enjoyment. But yet another week had flown by, and we found ourselves at the airport yet again (Koh Samui Airport is one of the coolest airports you’ll come across by the way). But what’s that saying again about the journey and the destination? I think that phrase applied to this journey in particular, because it was one cool journey before we were to arrive at our next destination.
OK, I’m just going to mention this now. If you every get a chance to choose between any domestic airlines in South East Asia and Bangkok Airways happens to be one of them, then choose them! Before you ask, they haven’t got me onboard as their UK Ambassador, nor are they unfortunately paying me anything, but they just happened to surprise us at every point we dealt with them, and in a good way at that! They were relatively cheap, but it’s all the extras that were cool. Every flyer with the airline gets access to their lounges, where they basically put on an unlimited buffet for you before your flight. If that wasn’t enough, they give you a three-course Thai meal when on the flight, which is pretty normal as flights tend to give food, but I forgot to mention that the flight was only an hour-long. So anyway, a shout out to Bangkok Airways for making the travel to and from the islands pretty cool!
Once we arrived back at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, we took the over-ground rail link in order to get on the MRT, the underground subway system in Bangkok, and eventually, arrived at Hua Lamphong Train Station. Just gazing outside while on the over-ground was cool. I loved the feeling of looking outside and seeing the shiny, golden spires of the Wats (temples) in the background, and then randomly watching a game of football at a school as my train went past. Maybe it was the feeling of being somewhere new, or maybe it was because I knew we would be back in forty days or so to discover this crowded, hot, jungle of a city, I don’t know, but watching Bangkok go past us as we raced ahead to the station made me feel very excited.
Once we arrived at Hua Lamphong, we had a few hours to kill before starting the main leg of our journey to get to Chiang Mai, the Bangkok-Chiang Mai night train. We’d been on trains during this trip already, although they were the super-modern Japanese ones, and we hadn’t yet done a night journey aboard a train, so we were pretty excited as to what to expect. Soon enough, we were called aboard, and our thirteen-hour night train journey to Chiang Mai began!
We found our seating area, packed away our luggage, and settled in. Straight away we both wondered where we were going to sleep, as this was a sleeper train. We had two seats facing each other, with a large table between them. No bed above either. We kind of assured ourselves that it’ll be fine, but inside were still pretty puzzled. Were we on the right train?! Not longer after the train departed, a kind Thai lady came to take our dinner order. Expecting sandwiches and crisps, or something of a similar level, we were pleasantly surprised when we were asked what kind of Thai curry we’d like with our rice! Again, being on a train, our expectations were kept minimal, but the meal onboard the train ended up being awesome.
The long day, and the food, started to make us feel a bit sleepy. Wondering whether we were just going to have to curl up on our chairs and rough it for the night, along came a man who asked us to stand up off our seats and move to one side. As he looked pretty official looking, we quickly got up and made space. He mumbled something under his mouth-mask he was wearing, and then got to work. Over the next two minutes, we were like two kids who had just seen a magic trick for the first time.
It was pretty cool to see how such a small compact space, previously two large seats with a large table, was changed to produce an area with two beds. And he was pretty quick to do it too!
The sleep itself wasn’t too bad. We probably got a good six hours or so, and woke up with a man shouting “Orangeee juiceeee!!” at 6 o’clock in the morning! We woke, packed up, and waited for our arrival into Chiang Mai.
It’s a bit strange arriving at a new destination, after a very long journey, and arriving first thing in the morning! We had a whole day ahead of us, even though it felt like we’d just been through a whole day already. So we got out at Chiang Mai station, and made our way to the taxis, where there plenty of ’songthaew’ taxis to bargain with and to take us closer to our accommodation. And soon enough, our energy came back. The noise from the horns, the smells of the food in the air, and the sights of golden spires woke our senses up quickly enough, and after freshening up back at the room, we were ready to go out and discover Chiang Mai!
Chiang Mai is located in Northern Thailand, an area known for its vast mountains, thick forests and ever-flowing rivers. It was established in the 1200s, by the Lan Na Kingdom. They ended up ruling the area for 500 years, and used Chiang Mai as their capital. Being so close to Burma (Myanmar) and Laos, the city had a solid wall constructed around it, to ward of threat from both Burma and the Mongols, some parts of which can still be seen today.
Today, people come to Chiang Mai to experience it’s culture. The Lan Na people spread the influence of Buddhism during their reign, and today, the city is very much alive and kicking with Buddhism. You literally can’t go more than twenty seconds without seeing another beautiful Wat. And if you ventured outside the city a bit further, there was plenty of wildlife and nature to see and experience. With that said, I think it was time to get our culture hats back on. We had given ourselves a good amount of time in Chiang Mai on purpose, as we wanted to take this beautiful city in slowly and peacefully.
We dived straight in on the first day, and went to go and see some of the Wats in Chiang Mai. Most are within walking distance of each other, so it made for a good walking tour of the city, which was a good way to get our bearings straight away. The only thing is, this day was one of the hottest days we’d had so far! We strolled from Wat to Wat, thankful to get inside one and take its shade! In all seriousness though, the moment you turn a corner and see a Wat in all it’s glory for a first time, you always end up standing still and taking it in for a split second, every single time. The designs of the temples are so eye-catching. The gold-coloured tops gets you glancing at them that little bit longer. And once you enter a Wat, you end up just staring in awe at the sometimes enormous statues of the Buddha. Even with all the grandeur, inside is a pretty relaxed and peaceful atmosphere. The smell of the incense sticks and chimes of the bells made you feel like you were going back in time somewhat.
We started at some of the smaller temples, and headed up to Wat Chedi Luang, the oldest Wat in Chiang Mai, dating back to the 1300s.
A cool thing we got to do that day at Chedi Luang was to sit down and have a chat with a Buddhist monk. They run these kinds of chat sessions for the public to broaden their knowledge on Buddhism and to ask the monk any questions they may have. The monks do it so that they are able to practice their English-speaking skills. I guess it was cool for us and it gave us an opportunity to ask about the religion that had followed us around over the past month or so. We asked why he had become a monk, and what he had looked to gain from it. Some of the interesting things he said were that Buddhism teaches to let go of materialism, something that I’m sure we’re all guilty of ‘in the West’, and how you can be exceptionally happy without any items of belongings. We’ve all got so used to having and getting things, and getting more things when we’re unhappy. Spending money when you’re unhappy (or even not unhappy!) to acquire more items of belongings has become the rule almost now. It was a very interesting half an hour, and one that’s definitely got me interested in learning about Buddhism in the future.
We continued across the city, walking into many more Wats throughout the day…
After taking in a lot of temples in our first day, we got some late lunch at a very jamming street side eatery, very close to all the Wats. They specialised in a dish very synonymous now with Chiang Mai: Kôw Soy. Kôw Soy is a spiced wheat-and-egg noodle soup, and one that will stay in our memories for a very long time. The eatery was very minimalistic, and we were in for a quick bowl of noodles to keep us going. What we got was one of the tastiest dishes we’d had so far on the trip. And to add to the mind-bogglement of the situation, the whole bowl for lunch cost 50 Thai Baht, or 1 Pound! Shout out to the two women cooks at Kôw Soy Siri Soy! Amazing!
After lunch, we took in some history of Chiang Mai. We checked out some of the places where you could learn all about the history and the ways of the Lan Na Kingdom and their people, who shaped the way Chiang Mai is today. The Chiang Mai Folklife Museum and Chiang Arts & Cultural Centre were particularly interesting, as it took you back in time and showed you how the city came to be.
The next day, we started off by visiting one of Chiang Mai’s largest and busiest indoor markets, Warorat Market. This place sold virtually anything and everything! It was cool walking around for a bit, and seeing how the Thai’s shopped. With food, everything was fresh, probably brought in that very day, and there was so much variety. The variety of teas they had on sale was crazy!
We’d almost done a whole day’s temple hopping the previous day, and were prepared to call it a day with the temples for the meantime. Chiang Mai definitely had a lot of temples, but it had a lot of other things to other that we didn’t want to skip. We did however, want to see one last temple that would’ve seemed silly to miss, as it was one of Chiang Mai’s most important and oldest ones, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. This temple was built on a mountain 10 miles out of Chiang Mai, and is very sacred. A songthaews taxi brings you up the mountain, to the base of the temple, and you walk the rest. The walkway up to the temple was amazing in itself, with the wall and railings designed in the mould of bright green dragons. And once you get up and inside the temple, it’s pretty special to look at. It’s very bright for starters! There is gold everywhere: the chedi, and Buddhas, the railings, all gold. But it’s calm and quiet, with many Buddhists going through rituals and meditating. It was a cool sight to see. The views while you’re up here are pretty special as well. You can look down on the whole city of Chiang Mai, and even see the square outline of the city, where the old city walls would once have been.
The rest of the day was pretty chilled out, and after a lot of walking around in the heat the past few days, we thought it only right to end the day by treating ourselves to a traditional Thai massage! For a two-hour massage, it worked out to around to the equivalent of £12 or so, so it was pretty good value, and very relaxing!
I think this next day was probably my favourite day in all the time we spent in Chiang Mai. And before we start, I’ll just say that I’ve never totally been comfortable around animals (I know, I’m sorry animal lovers!). I was bitten by a dog as a kid, and never really had any pets, so being around anything that walks other than a human has always made me feel a bit uneasy. When we read that Chiang Mai is home to some amazing wildlife, we didn’t exactly go rushing into seeing any of it at first. But I’ve always been fascinated by elephants. They’re meant to be super-intelligent, and obviously the sheer size of them makes them incredible creatures you’d want to see. It’s not everyday you get to see one, especially over in Europe, so we thought it would be cool to go and see the elephants out in the open.
We searched around, and came across a place called Elephant Nature Park, a place that rescues and rehabilitates elephants that have been in distress. A lot of these elephants have been used as street performers, in circuses, and just general transport animals. I guess we think not too much of it because we’re used to animals being treated this way, but come to think of it, they were meant to roam the land and be healthy as well as any one of us. So a place that looked after these creatures, took them away from the torture, and brought them to a place where they are free to roam around in nature, is a place that sounded right to us. And it ended up being quite a humbling experience.
As well as venturing around to the difference areas of the Nature Park, which is set right within the Northern Thailand’s forests and mountains, you take a good amount of time in feeding the elephants and walking around with them.
Being around these huge animals was something like I’ve never experienced before. It was an unbelievably calming experience. You could feel the elephant acknowledging you when you put your hands up to it’s trunk, and it would stare right into your eyes. But happily. You felt a connection with these guys. You then felt sorry for all the trouble they’ve had to go through for the sake of humans, carrying and lifting large loads, or performing for the sake of entertainment. It’s why this park didn’t allow the riding of elephants. They’re let to live as they would in nature, with the aid of people. I’ve never been an animal activist! But this experience made me think about cruelty towards these creatures.
Before we headed back to Chiang Mai, we took the elephants up to the stream where we spent half an hour or so bathing them. This bit was jokes!
All in all, this was such a good experience, it’s definitely the first thing I’d recommend someone to do if they are going to Chiang Mai.
Another highlight in Chiang Mai was learning how to cook Thai food! Learning how to cook different Thai dishes is a popular thing up here, and there are so many schools that give you an opportunity to come and learn. We picked a school called Thai Farm Cooking School, and had a fabulous time. They picked you up from the Old City in the morning, take you to an indoor food market to learn what to buy and see how locals do their food shopping, where everything was so fresh and ready to take away. They then take you to their farm out of the city, where you do all your cooking in the day, and see how they grow all their fresh ingredients. It was good fun, and a really good way to learn to cook Thai food.
The Farm is laid out really well. You get to cook right next to where all the produce has been grown, and even go along to pick some of the spices you’ll be using. After a brief introduction to the local foods and spices, we were ready to get cooking!
Each person gets to make about 4-5 courses, so we made and ate a lot of food that afternoon. We got to try our hands at Tom Yam Soup, spring rolls, pad Thai, green and yellow curries, and sticky rice with mango for dessert. It was good fun as we both love cooking, and got given a recipe book to try it out all at home again.
The last day before we left this amazing city was a Sunday, and that worked out pretty well because Chiang Mai’s biggest night market takes place on a Sunday. Appropriately named Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market, it’s a market that becomes really busy but is a place to find some great gifts for back home. Sadly, we didn’t have much space in our already full backpacks, but we had a great time wandering around nosily looking at all the things people were selling. It was a great place for the curious. And after a month of no hint of any Indian food, we went nuts for the samosas being sold in the food quarter!
It was a great way to finish our time in Chiang Mai. We had been spiritually uplifted, spent our time amongst nature and it’s animals, and cooked and ate some of the freshest food we’d ever had. As we went back to sleep, we passed through Chiang Mai Gate, one of the remaining sections of the old city walls. It was a nice way to say farewell to the city that had just given us a boost of life. Next, our journey to Laos was about to begin..