Thailand Part 1: The North

April 5, 2016

I’ve been a terrible travel blogger for the past few weeks. I haven’t even been busy, I’ve just been “living hard,” as I like to say. Exploring as much as possible, relaxing when it’s time to take a break, and moving around a lot. After my magical trip to Myanmar, I made my way to Thailand, the only country from this trip that I’ve already visited before. I was excited to dig deeper into the north, and really get to know Thailand after my whirlwind trip there two years ago.

So, back to Myanmar. Leaving that lovely country was bittersweet, but I was excited to be in Thailand and see a familiar city that I knew I loved. From Mandalay, I took an hour-long flight in a tiny little propeller plane to Chiang Mai. After hopping into my taxi to my hostel, I was quickly reminded of how westernized Thailand is compared to Myanmar. I remember arriving in Bangkok at the very beginning of my trip and thinking about how different and uncomfortable it was. Now, after having spent nearly a month in a place that is much more removed from the western world, I stared at the 7-11’s and the nice cars and McDonald’s familiar arches and felt like I might as well have just been sent back to America. It was a strange feeling, and still is.

I showed up at my hostel to find no one there – everyone was at the bustling Sunday night market, according to the guy at the desk. He suggested that I drop my stuff off and make my way there before it closed, which I promptly did. I didn’t bring my camera with me to the market and I’m so bummed I didn’t. It was easily the best market experience I’ve had (and when you’re in Asia, you have a lot of experiences at markets). It was the perfect start to my time in Thailand .

I ended up spending four days in Chiang Mai. Its laid back vibe makes it a really easy place to lose time in. The last time I had been in Chiang Mai was nearly two years ago, when Rachel and I took a quick seven-day vacation around Thailand. We spent two days in Chiang Mai and it was entirely too short, but enough to make me want to return and really get to see it.

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I spent my days in Chiang Mai wandering the streets and walking so, so much. I explored tons of temples – Chiang Mai has some really beautiful ones – and I ate a lot of good food. So much good food. Burmese cuisine seemed good enough while I was there, but I forgot how amazing Thai food was until I ate my first incredible curry dish for lunch. Every meal I’ve had since has blown me away compared to Burmese food (sorry, Myanmar, I know you tried). I basically ate my way through Chiang Mai, trying tons of curries and rice dishes, an amazing Indian restaurant, and one night at an Italian restaurant because I just really, really wanted one night with a glass of wine and some pizza and no rice in sight. It was wonderful.

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On my third day in Chiang Mai, I booked a day tour at Elephant Nature Park, a nearby elephant sanctuary that doesn’t do elephant riding, but gives visitors an up close encounter with its elephants. Before I get into my experience, a little side note about elephant riding: when I was here two years ago, Rachel and I booked a riding excursion at a place that also categorized itself as a “sanctuary” (i.e. a place that rescues elephants from abuse). It was a pretty amazing experience, but seeing the elephants in chains and watching the mahouts threaten them with their big sharp hooks was unsettling to say the least. Of course, upon doing a lot more research before choosing a place to go with this time around, I learned that there’s a really ugly underbelly when it comes to domesticating elephants for tourism, and I regret ever riding an elephant in the first place. I won’t go into all of the details about elephant abuse in Southeast Asia, but Elephant Nature Park’s website is a good resource to learn more about elephant tourism.

Anyway, this time around, I still wanted to see elephants, because they really are amazing, but I obviously went with zero riding and gave my money to a place that I know is doing good things for elephants in Thailand. And what an experience it was. We spent the day walking with four elephants – two adult sisters and two babies – through the forest as they foraged for food and goofed around with each other. We gave them a mud bath and washed them off in a nearby waterfall and basically just watched them be the coolest animals, ever. It was such an incredible day, and left me wondering why I’d ever wanted to ride one in the first place, when just being with them on the ground level is so much more interesting, anyway.

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That night, I met up with my German friend from Myanmar, Anja, who had also made her way to Chiang Mai from Mandalay over land. We spent the evening with a Thai man she’d reached out to on CouchSurfing, and he took us to some really cool local bars. We were out late with him and his friends that night, talking with them about Thai traditions and their jobs and girlfriends and lives in Chiang Mai. They were the most hospitable group and were so interested in showing us the Thai way of life. It was such a good time, and was especially nice to get away from the tourist haunts and spend time with the people who actually live there.

And that brings me to Chiang Dao, which is where I headed the following day. Kaylyn, an American I’d met in Myanmar, had been to Chiang Dao a few weeks before and raved about how relaxing and quaint it was, so I decided to go. It was a short 90-minute ride on the local bus through winding roads and tall hills to get there. Upon arriving, I was a little unsure about how I was going to spend my two days there alone, with a little chance of meeting other backpackers considering how remote and quiet my guesthouse seemed. Of course, as I was eating dinner by myself, another girl who was eating alone across the way came and sat with me since it seemed silly for us to be the only people in the restaurant, eating alone. Her name was Katie and she was from Cape Town, South Africa, but on assignment in Chiang Dao because she’s a travel journalist (hello, dream job). We ended up talking for a while before heading to a bar to continue to chat, along with a Kiwi from Nelson, in New Zealand’s South island. It was a really, really wonderful night, and I was reminded that the small, off the beaten path places are so rewarding, both in terms of experiences and in the people you meet. The good ones always find their way to the weird places.

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I spent the next day hiking all by myself through Chiang Dao’s nature trail, which was a strange, but rewarding experience, to say the least. It involved me wandering, completely alone, through a dense forest for about 2 hours, basically thinking the entire time, “I really hope I’m going the right way,” and “crap, I totally took a wrong turn,” and “if I get lost in here, I’m definitely going to die.” Finally, after stumbling down some giant hills, I made my way to a beautiful clearing with tons of trees tied with orange sashes. I think it was a monastery. I was fairly confused at that point and had no idea where I was until I reached the Chiang Dao Caves, which is Chiang Dao’s main tourist attraction. And since I was there, I decided I might as well go in. About five minutes into my cave tour, I realized that caves really aren’t my thing (too dark, too lonely), and I high tailed it out of there when it finally ended. It was interesting, but dark and creepy and full of bats. I’d rather spend my time among trees, thank you very much.

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On my last day in Chiang Dao, I attempted to ask the people who run my hostel how to get to Pai, only to be disappointed by their complete lack of English skills, as I had been for most of my stay there. Luckily, I had befriended the woman who owned the hostel/bar next door where my South African friend had been staying, and she was excellent at English and had great advice about all things Thailand. She told me it wasn’t difficult to get to Pai, as long I followed her directions perfectly. She gave me very detailed directions, which involved a taxi, two buses, some suicidal street crossings, and a sketchy ticket agency. She drew a map for me on a tiny piece of torn paper, wrote down the names of everything I needed to know the name of, and sent me on my way. If there’s anything I’ve learned during my time in Asia, it’s to trust that everything will work out, even when I have no idea what I’m doing. This was certainly one of those moments.

On my first bus from Chiang Dao, I sat next to a goofy, charismatic French guy who (along with a nice Thai woman) figured out how to let the bus driver know where I was to get off. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I looked at my little map, which hadn’t left my hand since I’d gotten it, and did exactly as my friend had told me, which involved a market and a bunch of street crossings, and a ticket office where I was to buy my bus ticket to Pai. I found no ticket offices, but did see a video shop, and asked the woman there where I could buy a ticket to Pai. She smiled and said, “oh, ticket to Pai here!” Honestly I don’t even know why I was surprised that a shop selling VHS and DVDs would also sell bus tickets. So I bought my ticket, waited 30 minutes, and my mini bus from Chiang Mai picked me up to take me on the windy, windy road to Pai.

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I’ll be completely honest here, before I get into talking about Pai. This place was not my cup of tea. I’d heard a lot about it before I came. Mostly good things – about how beautiful it is and how fun it is and how many drugs you can do there (not something I was particularly interested in, but a whole lot of people there are). I’d also heard that in the past decade it’s gone from a relaxing Thai mountain town to a backpacker haven that doesn’t feel the least bit local. I decided to visit because I don’t think you should ever not go to a place just because a few people don’t like it, but unfortunately, I left with a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and a view that echoes most of the negative things I’d heard.

Negative things aside, Pai did deliver in the beauty category. The drive there was breathtaking (albeit a little terrifying), and my day spent on the back of a new German friend, Alex’s, motorbike provided views and an experience unlike any I’ve had before. The beauty in Pai isn’t in the town itself, but in everything around it. Highlights from my motorbike tour with many Germans (including Anja, who showed up in Pai at the same time) and a Dutch guy included our trip to a gorgeous waterfall, lunch and a game of pool at a roadside restaurant, and (my favorite part of the day) hiking around Pai Canyon at sunset.

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I ended up staying in Pai for about a day and a half in all, which was plenty for me. Anja, our new friend, Judith (also German, of course), and I spent our last day there eating breakfast at an adorable café for about four hours before heading back to Chiang Mai. I spent a day doing a Thai cooking class, which was good fun. I learned that Thai people use sugar and fish oil in literally everything they cook. And I walked away with some great recipes to try at home. On my last night in Chiang Mai, I went to the night market with Anja and Judith. We ate good food and scored some sweet jewelry and trinkets. Some day, I’ll come to Southeast Asia with an empty backpack and just fill it with everything I want to buy here.

And just like that, my two weeks in the north were done, and it was time to make my way to the south. I was ready for some time in the big blue sea.

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