Retro Trip Post: This is article 2 of 3 articles reflecting on our first trip to Thailand taken in 2011.
After visiting Koh Samui to celebrate the marriage of two of our friends, we were invited to join them as they traveled to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Chiang Mai was our favorite part of our trip to Thailand. The city is smaller than we expected, but has a lot of history. Remains of town walls and moats surround the city. There are old temples scattered throughout the city blocks and you don’t have to travel far from the city to experience national parks, hill tribe villages, and historic ruins of the ancient Lanna Kingdom.
DAY 1 – Thursday, March 17
We arrived in Chang Mai on a Bangkok Airways flight from Koh Samui. It was a gloomy, rainy day. We checked into our hotel, and then rendezvoused with our group of approximately 15 friends. It was Saint Patrick’s Day and the NCAA March Madness Basketball Tournament was wrapping up. Most of the group decided to get a beer and watch a game, but a few of us were too eager to tour the city.
With a map of the city, we set out on foot to see the sights. Our first stop was to Wat Phra Singh. Unlike the touristy big Buddhas on Koh Samui, Wat Phra Singh was an active temple with locals meditating and praying. The deep reds and bright golds of the interior of the temple gleamed for a more serene temple experience.
Turning the corner from Wat Phra Singh, we faced Chedi Luang. Chedi Luang was one of the most impressive structures we saw on our trip. It wasn’t sparkling like other temples and palaces in Thailand, but it was impressive with life size elephant statues emerging from stone walls. From one side a golden Buddha was visible inside where they say the emerald Buddha used to sit.
Wandering around the city we passed by other temples, buildings, and statues marked on our map. Two story shops and restaurants lined each block, but the streets never felt too crowded. We decided to get out of the rain and find a beer to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. At the first bar we stopped at, an Irish backpacker was thrilled to find others celebrating their holiday, especially because Jon had worn his ‘Temple Bar, Dublin’ t-shirt for the occasion. We stopped for another beer to wait out the rain at Kafe 1985. It was dark when we emerged and we found ourselves near the city walls. We didn’t like the first restaurant we stopped in for dinner, so we decided to try the ‘Antique House’ which was mentioned in a guidebook we had with us. We hailed two tuk-tuks and showed them the listing in the guidebook. Riding in the tuk tuk’s was a lot of fun. But after a while (when we crossed the city moat) we knew they were taking us to the wrong place. A few minutes later we were at the Teak House instead of the Antique House. Not sure what to think, we headed back to our hotel where we found dinner at a near by restaurant (I think it was called Lemongrass).
Our hotel was also close to a night market, so after eating we walked through the streets as the sidewalks lined with booths. At this particular night market, the booths were mostly crafts and souvenirs for tourists, such as wooden carved elephants and purses.
DAY 2 – Friday, March 18
This was the day most of us were looking forward to the most, and it did turn out to be one of our favorite days of our trip. The bride and groom arranged for our group to spend the day at the Patara Elephant Farm and participate in their ‘Own an Elephant for a Day’ program.
A shuttle bus picked us up at the hotel and drove us to a more remote area of country side. Our first view of the farm was elephants grazing while some danced back and forth. We later learned that the dancing is actually a sign that a trained elephant doesn’t know how to adjust to the freedom of the elephant farm.
The guides took us to a hut and handed out linen pants and woven ponchos to put on over our clothes (we were told to wear shorts and t-shirts that could get wet). We were given an introduction speech, then we were walked out to meet the elephants. Each person or couple was assigned on elephant. Jon and I were given Ma Boon Tong. Ma Boon Tong was pregnant and therefore would not be able to kneel as low as other elephants. They choose us for Ma Boon Tong because of our height to reach over her without her needing to bend down. The elephant’s name and a few basic commands were written in pen on our wrists.
To introduce ourselves, we were given a basket of fruit; bananas, squash, and more, to feed the elephants with. At first we held the fruit out and the elephants would take it in their trunks and feed themselves. As we got more conformable with the elephants, we would place the food directly in their open months.
When the elephants were fed, we were taught the 3 signs of a happy, healthy elephant: 1) flapping ears, 2) a slight amount of sweat on their toe nails, and 3) poop which was dry, grassy, and odorless. We were not allowed to move on to the next step until everyone present smelled some elephant poop.
As an elephant owner, the next portion of the day was dedicated to cleaning the elephant. First, we used fallen tree branches to swipe dirt from the elephant’s back. The dirt accumulated there because elephants threw it on themselves to cool down. From there we led the elephants into the river to wash them. Washing an elephant involves wading into the water with brushes and buckets and scrubbing hard. Even though the elephants are able to throw water with their trucks, they weren’t much help. The cleaning continued until the guides were sure there was not dirt on the elephants which might rub against them while we rode them later that day. The guides gathered everyone together in the river for a group picture, punctuated by the elephants spraying water on us all.
We took turns boarding the elephants. There were several ways to get on, some elephants would kneel, others would put their head down and let you step on their truck, and others yet gave you their foot to boost you up. One of the nice things about Patara was that the guides took photos for you, including a video of each person getting onto the elephants. The girls were seated on the elephants’ necks while the boys rode on their backs. Later we would be repositioned with the boys on the necks while the girls sat with on the elephants’ heads with their legs down their foreheads.
At first, riding the elephant was very scary for me. The elephants walked in a mostly straight line but would stray. Any green leaves in the adjacent brush would draw their attention and they would walk over to it and start pulling at the branches to fed. The elephants wandered along a small muddy creek. At one point, after a lot of frustration, another guide swapped with ours and instantly Ma Boon Thong’s demeanor changed. She stopped walking out of line and started to flap her ears. The rest of the day was much more enjoyable. We rode the elephants up a hill and along a road to a picnic area with a small waterfall. The elephants waded in the water while we ate a lunch of sticky rice, fruit, and chicken served on banana leaves. There was a ton of food and it was good. After we ate, the left overs (minus the chicken) were rolled up in the banana leaves and fed to the elephants. The ride down was similar, although by then many people were sore from riding. Elephant hair is very coarse and in some areas we had small brush burns from rubbing against the elephant while riding.
Back at the elephant farm, we had a little time to play with the baby elephants. Finally, we rode the elephants again, this time to the parking lot where our shuttle was waiting to take us to the hotel.
We cleaned up and soon it was time for dinner. Our group had dinner reservations at Khum Khantoke for a traditional Khantoke dinner. We went to a large restaurant and were seated on cushions around a low table. The tables formed a square around a performance area. The meal replicated a traditional Lanna Kingdom Thai dinner. Food is served family style in bowls and is meant to be eaten with your fingers. Halfway through the meal, performers took the stage and preformed traditional Lanna dances. One of the dances I recall was the ‘monkey dance’ in which one dancer dressed as a monkey danced with another dressed as a bird..
DAY 3 – Saturday, March 19
The bride and groom arranged a van and guide to pick us up at the hotel and show us some more remote areas. Our first stop, which was a big hit with everyone, was Tiger Kingdom. At Tiger Kingdom you could purchase experiences to get up close to small, medium, and large tigers. Jon and I first saw the small tigers, 4 pups each approximately 15 pounds. The small tigers were playful with us and each other and were a joy to pet and watch. Our next tiger experience was with 4 of the large tigers. Entering the big tiger pen is a bit intimidating. Four adult tigers were laying very docile on a wooden platform. The trainers say that tigers sleep 22 hours a day and had just been fed which is why they were calm and tame. The debate is open among our friends if they were naturally that tame or if pharmaceuticals had helped. Once in the pen, we could pet the tigers from behind and even lay with our heads on their backs. The rules were to always stay behind them and not to touch their heads or paws. One tiger even enjoyed a belly rub, however when another tiger stood for a few minutes we all put up our guard. Tiger Kingdom also had other cats, like lions and had birds which we could observe similar to a zoo.
Our next stop was to the Lost City of Wiang Kum Kam. The Lost City are temples from the lost Lanna Kingdom which were apparently buried in a flood after the capital moved. I’m a bit cloudy on the story, but I think the Thai populace knew the temple names, but had lost their location until the 1980’s. The main feature is Wat Ku Kham (more popularly known as Wat Chedi Liem), which is best preserved because it was not flooded.
Then we headed to Doi Inthanon National Park. The bus stopped first at Wachiratan Waterfall. A short hike takes you to overlooks to watch the falls from. Further into the park, we stopped at a small market where tribe villagers sold dried fruits, jewelry, flowers, seasonings, and more. Then we drove to the start of our hike. We hiked through the park to a hill village along a small trail which the natives travel on motorbike. The trail started out through the jungle and our guide pointed out plants and even found a gecko. That same gecko attacked Jon when placed back on the ground. Continuing along the trail we crossed streams near waterfalls, climbed through bamboo overgrowth, and walked through terraced crops along hill sides. At the end of our hike was a small hill tribe village whose main export, we were told, was coffee. Sitting in a small pavilion, we watched a local make coffee and were served a glass. Instead of hiking back, our shuttle picked us up on the other side of the village.
For dinner that night we went out for Kao Soi. Kao Soi is a curry dish made with both boiled and fried noodles. We ate at Aroon Rai Restaurant and Kao Soi quickly became a favorite dish of ours. We have since found it at two restaurants near home.
- The Vocational Training Center of Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution – The women’s vocational training centre offers massages by students at low prices. Several members of our group went there and highly recommended it.
- Night Safari – Our friends recommended doing a night safari where they saw animals and even got to hold a baby tiger.