Northern Thailand, with its lush greenery and multiple rivers flowing through, has seemingly kept so much of itself untouched and untamed. Just below these mountain tops lies a bustling city alive with markets, activities, and so many delicious cafes and authentic restaurants it’s difficult to choose which one to go to. My time in Chiang Mai and the northern region of Thailand was memorable and I left still knowing there was so much more to experience and explore.
Through advice from a friend who lives in southern Thailand I decided to stay in the Old City part of Chiang Mai. This area is rich in history and is still surrounded by the old moats and crumbling city wall ruins. These moats and walls were built, I believe in the 1200s, to keep out neighboring countries prone to invade, primarily Burma. Now, it lends itself to keeping people like me from getting too lost while wandering the many small streets lined with shops and vendors. While staying in this area everything I needed and more was within a 5 minute walk and laundry could be dropped off right across the street. The walls are built in a square to surround the city in about a mile or two radius, I could be wrong on the distance. This area of Thailand has as many temples as Bali does, but these temples are Buddhist as opposed to Hindu and the structure and artistic design is very different and unique.
Every afternoon the locals would bring their produce, meats, and cooked foods into the city to sell fresh on a daily basis. Many of the shops would have a multitude of things you could get from that one small shop. Often times I could buy a meal, rent a scooter if I chose, and buy some groceries all in the same tiny shop; maybe even get my laundry done or buy a tour. At night, there were plenty of things to do and over all I felt safe walking the inner city streets of Chiang Mai by myself. Everyone I met had a helpful and friendly demeanor and there was always a tuk-tuk at the corner ready to give you a ride if you were done walking for the evening. The streets are filled with tuk-tuks, little motorized carriages, and I took many. It’s an inexpensive and fun way to get around and see the rest of the city outside the Old City walls. Every Sunday evening there is a big night market that includes everything all the other markets hold, clothes, crafts, foods, etc, but adds music, performances and is just on a much bigger more crowded scale. Be ready to be around a whole lot of people if you decide to go. Also seeing an authentic Muy-thai boxing event is a worth it event.
By far the most memorable experience I had in Thailand was visiting, learning to care for, and riding bare-back, the elephants. The Asian elephant has been used in Thailand for hundreds and hundreds of years as a way for transportation, farming, and fighting in war. You will see elephant figurines and paintings mostly due to the fact that the elephant is recognized by many here as highly intelligent, strong, hard-working, loyal, and a huge help and asset to the survival of Thailand for centuries. For many here elephants are to be appreciated and respected. With that said I feel it is just as important to be aware that due to many factors, tourism being a big one, elephants are now often mistreated and abused. There are many elephant tours and sanctuaries claiming that they are good to or saving the elephants when in fact they are not and if educated even a little you will be able to tell before giving your money to a group. I never had a desire to learn about elephants or create an awareness about their treatment until I met one and she gave me a hug. My heart melted. It was then I realized they create strong bonds and have heartfelt emotions. Elephants feel love, joy, grief, compassion, trauma, stress, and in times of stress they give each other hugs. She must have known I was having an emotional morning because while the other elephants were doing occasional naughty things she was so gentle with me and seemed so patient even when I was stumbling to do things correctly for her. I am convinced she was just an emotionally intuitive creature, as most women are.
There were only three of us who did a little research and chose this smaller elephant camp. There were only four elephants on this large property that included a river flowing through it on the bottom portion of this giant land that stretched as far as my eyes could see with mountains in the background. Each elephant had its own keeper, a mahout. The mahout for the elephant I cared for had a special relationship with his elephant, it was obvious. They were friends and it showed. I was able to feed giant sugarcane stalks to my elephant to build a good vibe, then we just kind of hung out while she smelled me and we just got used to each other. Then I mustered up enough bravery to climb up onto her neck. She lifted her leg to give me a boost. Yes, it is a trained thing to do but I took forever and she waited with no impatience. I learned the motions to slowly guide her and we trekked for about half an hour down to the river. She then got down on one knee so I could get off without completely injuring myself. She gave me a good ride and took me through these scenic lands, so in appreciation I gave her a bath in the river. Sure, she can bath herself but who doesn’t like getting a sponge bath and someone else cleaning behind their ears. Bathing her took a while. She is huge and I did both sides, haha. We then hung out in the river and I was rinsing off and finishing up. Apparently, she was so appreciative she wanted to give me a bath too. She took water into her trunk and sprayed me. More than once. It is possible she knew I needed a good laugh as well. After all the fun she helped me get back on her neck and we were one our way back up to the top for lunch. We then had to say our goodbyes.
A couple things to know about elephants if you are looking into having an experience with one. They sleep a lot, not for long periods of time but shorts naps many, many times throughout the day. If you are going to an elephant camp and the camp allows for more than two short 30 minute rides per day than the elephant probably is not getting enough sleep or the kind of sleep they need. They work in spurts and a true sanctuary allows a short time with people once maybe twice per day and the rest the elephant will sleep and exercise on its own. If it is used for farming they will also work in spurts and eat and sleep in spurts. Another thing to know is the baskets on their back hurt. Having a human or two on their strong muscle-filled necks is equivalent to wearing a necklace, but those rigid giant baskets with seats used for riding tours are not good for their backs and actually hurt. I saw many camps who had these on the elephants giving ride after ride for hours on end. It was heartbreaking to see. Also it is good to pay attention to the relationship between the mahout and the elephant. If a mahout has more than one elephant, often it is not a good sign. If the mahout walks around with a big metal thing that looks like a hook that is probably how the elephant was trained and it likely was trained in an abusive manor.
Another must see in this northern region is the famous white temple. Guided tours aren’t my favorite thing to do but this temple is a ways north near the border of Thailand and while up there seeing the “golden triangle” is another accomplishment and something just kind of cool to say you did. The Golden Triangle is the border location where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet via intersecting calm rivers. There is a small island in the center of this border that is unowned by any country, I don’t advise getting out of a boat and stepping foot on this patch of land. It is known to be the place that criminal activity can happen and no law enforcement can enforce and accountability for anything that happens there. The Golden Triangle is also one of the world’s largest and the center for drug trafficking. Largely in part due to the amount of opium that can grow here. This tiny area produces 25% of the entire world’s opium, usually then made into heroin. A guided river tour is advised and I wouldn’t take it upon yourself to wonder off alone. I briefly stepped foot in Laos but it was through the guided tour.
All of this and I feel it is all only the tip of the iceberg to all the wonders northern Thailand holds. There is much more to be educated about, see, and experience in this enchanted part of the world.