Now that we’ve been over 5 months on the road with a handful of countries visited, friends back home and fellow travellers are often asking us “which is your favourite place so far?”.
We don’t really have a favourite place. We have enjoyed every country, city and village we’ve visited, but all in different ways. However, even though we don’t usually make comparisons, there are a few places that took our heart more than others. Some of the places that had a stronger impact on us and that are more difficult to forget are those where we experienced a strong culture shock – like many places in India and Vietnam. Other places that we loved were just and simply nice to hang around – no matter how touristy or ‘modern’ they were.
Chiang Mai belongs to the latter category. Perhaps it wasn’t an all time favourite, but it was a place where we could easily move to live permanently. It seems that many people like Chiang Mai in the same way as we did. We’ve come to realize that there is a fairly big expat community living there. Some people we met work remotely for western companies and chose to live in Thailand rather than in any western country.
So, I guess you are wondering, why Chiang Mai? I think above all, we enjoyed mix of tradition and modernity. You can still immerse in Thailand’s ancient culture and tradition, while having access to all sorts of modern facilities. The surroundings have beautiful landscapes, the climate is nice and more moderate than other places in Southeast Asia, the food is delicious (and cheap), the hospitals are known to be some of the best in all Asia (and probably even better that many western hospitals), there is a great night life where you can meet expats as well as local people (having a good social life is an important criterion for us), people are very open to meet foreigners and they are also very open-minded and educated. I guess the only downside is that Chiang Mai is far from the sea – but you can easily book cheap flights to get to Phuket, Krabi or Koh Samui in the south.
From a traveller’s point of view, Chiang Mai can keep you quite busy. There’s lots to do. We stayed there 6 days, but we left with the feeling there was still plenty more to try. I guess we have more than an excuse to come back 🙂
Here are some some of the highlights of our visit to Chiang Mai:
Thai cuisine is famous for its delicious, exotic dishes and it’s one of our favourite cuisines in Asia. If you want to take a Thai cooking class then there’s no better place than Chiang Mai. With its many cooking schools, some of which are in operation since a long time, and all of which are in competition with one another, you’re guaranteed to get a great service. We choose asia scenic cooking school and we learned to cook some of the most famous Thai recipes, including phad thai, chicken with cashew nuts, and some variety of Thai curries. The cooking class starts with a visit to the local market where you learn about the different ingredients you’ll use during the day. The next stop is the school’s back garden where they have some typical Thai spices and herbs. Finally you go hands-on and with the help of the teacher, you learn to cook the recipes you’ve chosen. After the cooking part each student get to eat the dishes they prepared. At the end of the course you’re given a cook book so if you don’t remember your recipes you can use the book as a reference.
After seeing professional Khmer kickboxing (also known as Pradal Serey) in Phnom Penh, we were a bit disappointed with Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) in Chiang Mai. I’m sure there are plenty of other places where you can see real professional Muay Thai – unfortunately we ended up in one of those tourist traps and the matches looked more like a show put together for tourists rather than a genuine sport event. There were only few Thais in the crowd, and many beer-drinking farangs (foreigners).
There’s something like 300 temples (or Wat, which is the Thai word for temple) in Chiang Mai. No, we didn’t see them all, I guess we would need a month to do that. But we spent one and half day just going around walking in and out of the most important wats in town. Some temples organize what they call the “monk chat“, where travellers can meet monks and ask them all sorts of questions about Buddhism, their life as monks, etc. The monks love to meet foreigners as it’s an opportunity for them to practice their English. Unfortunately, somehow, we always managed to arrive at these temples outside the “chatting” hours so there was no monk chat for us this time. Chiang Mai is also very popular with people looking to learn more about meditation and many temples offer meditation courses – we regret we didn’t take any of these courses… another reason to come back 🙂
Sunday walking street
If you are planning a visit to Chiang Mai, make sure you stay for the weekend. There is a Saturday street market in Wualay street, south of the old town – we went too early and then we didn’t manage to come back, and a Sunday market in Ratchadamnoen street, right in the heart of the historical centre. We walked this street back and forth dozens of times, and we were impressed to see the transformation it underwent on Sunday. Cars and motorbikes were replaced by hundreds of pedestrians, side walks populated with dozens of stalls selling all sorts of things, from handicraft and clothes to foot massage, and finally inside the temple walls, you there were food stalls with yummy food, sweets, and fruit shakes. I think we tried 10 different small dishes that night in a sort of Spanish-tapas style and we would have loved to try more but our belly was exploding after a while. One thing that I was really impressed with is the waste sorting system that was in place so to lessen the impact of the market on the environment. This was the first time I saw something like this in Asia. Well done people of Chiang Mai!
Elephant Nature Park
When walking in the streets of Chiang Mai, you will see plenty of agencies, hotels and guesthouses selling all types of elephant tours – elephant trekking, visit to elephant camps, mahout courses, etc. After doing a bit of research, I decided to go for Elephant Nature Park as it seemed to be the place where the elephants were better looked after – Emanuele didn’t join me on this one so I went alone. A French guy we met in the cooking class advised against going to Elephant Nature Park based on the fact that they don’t provide elephant riding. But yes, I knew there wasn’t elephant riding and that was one of the reasons why I chose them. Lek, the park founder says that tourists have to entertain the elephants, not the other way around. This is their philosophy and it is also a guarantee that their elephants don’t suffer any kind of abuse to make tourists happy.
Most elephants in park were rescued from abusive mahouts and I learned some sad stories about the life of some of these animals. One of them for instance, was blinded by their mahout because she refused to do what was asked. Another one lost her baby and because she was so depressed she didn’t want to work so the mahout used to beat her. Most elephants in the park have a sad past, some are blind, some disabled, some orphans, but at least these sad stories had already an end thanks to Lek.
Lek comes from a ethnic minority village and she has a humble background, but with a lot of love and hard work she managed to found Elephant Nature Park in 1996 and now the park has already few dozens of Elephants. I found her courage and determination a real inspiration (in countries like Thailand, it get’s even tougher if you come from an ethnic minority – many ethnic minority people never get the Thai citizenship, preventing them from accessing education, health care, etc.). Her work has been featured in many famous newspapers and TV channels, such as National Geographic or BBC.
Despite being a bit expensive by Thai standards and for my long-term traveller pockets (2500THB, the equivalent of about 57 euros), it was money well spent. I had a fabulous day feeding and bathing the elephants, but what I enjoyed the most was just watching them playing and being happy 🙂
I wasn’t really sure whether I was going to do this one or not because I know my level of fitness is not exactly the best. But with Emanuele’s persistence, and the reassurance from the guys at Chiang Mai Mountain Biking that we would take a not too challenging trip, I agreed to it in the end. And I’m so glad I did!
This was a first for me and I loved it! I actually wonder why the hell did I wait 30 years of my life to try mountain biking?
There’s really not much to say about our mountain biking trip, just that it was a cool half-day going downhill and enjoying some stunning jungle and mountain views. Our itinerary ended by a beautiful lake, there we had lunch in a nice ‘floating’ hut.
We were enjoying it so much that we almost forgot to take pictures.