Chiang Mai: Gateway to Northern Thailand – 17/08/2019 to 21/08/2019

Liam and Emily again; catching up where we finished off! Liam: The bus, surprisingly, was not that bad. At all. As far as 11 hour transit goes, it was in fact one of the better ordeals we have had to face. That being said, once we arrived and checked into Living Place 2, our hostel of choice for Chiang Mai, we both immediately napped until gone midday. What to do in Chiang Mai once you wake up starving? Get Khao Soi of course! One of the best things about our hostel was it’s amazing location within the Islamic centre of the city. Plenty of choices for Northern Thai curries and soups!

Delicious, delicious Khao Soi

Filled and happy we booked excursions through our hostel for the coming days and set out to do some sightseeing within the Old Town of Chiang Mai itself, making sure we made the most of our first afternoon in the amazing city. Within the old city limits everything is close and within walking distance. Emily: We entered through the historic Thapae Gate. The gate was greatly restored after conflict and natural erosion took their course, but some original brickwork survived. The tall square wall was used as a fortification for the protection of the Old Town. I think it looks pretty amazing and can only imagine what would’ve lain beyond the entrance when it was built back in the 13th century.

Don’t worry that pigeon didn’t dive bomb us

Wat Chadi Luang is an ancient Buddhist temple built in the 1400s. It is absolutely massive and an amazing sight to behold. This temple much like the gate was left to fall to ruin and was restored as part of a UNESCO project with the help of the Japanese government in the 90’s. There are other temples on the ground that are worth seeing as well! The one in front of Chadi Luang is a sight to see. There are beautiful ornate pillars, colourful flags everywhere, and of course a giant golden Buddha. We spent a good hour wandering around, and for 40 baht or just over £1 it was absolutely worth it.

The ancient temple

We committed ourselves to an afternoon of temple hopping so we tore our gaze and headed to the next major sight: Wat Prah Singh. Unfortunately the temple itself was closed for renovation but we were able to walk around the grounds and it was by far the most peaceful and green of all three temples we visited. Lily pads and water. Monks tending gardens. So serene. Everything you want from an inner city green space.

We were pretty enchanted with the water droplets on these lily pads

The last temple we visited was Wat Chiang Man. It was quite empty when we got there which made exploring the grounds and the temple even more special. The most stand out thing here was the hand painted wooden walls covering the inside of the temple. It told a story we didn’t know but found the imagery very captivating. We wondered what it would be like for an Asian tourist looking at a European cathedral and seeing the stations of the cross, perhaps not knowing the story they told. Sometimes not knowing is better, only adding to the mysticism these places inspire.

Liam especially enjoyed this mythical beast

With the three major temples of Chiang Mai’s Old Town ticked off we set out for some dinner! We went to the North gate market and were surrounded by aromatic stalls on all sides. Only one stall interested us though. Cowboy hat lady. Her stall selling braised pork with rice and a soft boiled egg was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown when he came to Thailand and has since launched her into the spotlight of Chiang Mai Street food. I had visited her stall a few years back and kept quiet as about my feelings as I wanted to see what Liam, lover of pork, thought. His verdict? Delicious of course! Just like last time. What we really loved about her stall was that even though she has increased her staff and stall since her rise in popularity, her prices have still remained remarkably affordable. Keeping her street food how street food should be – well priced, delicious and memorable. Full after eating her famous dish and the only other item on her menu, a pork knuckle soup, we called it a night. It was a brilliant first day up north.

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Delicious pork from the famous cowboy lady – Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak

Day two was a big day for us. It was the day we went to visit an elephant sanctuary! We went to the Elephant Village Sanctuary which our lovely hostel highly recommended. After reading stand out reviews on trip advisor we booked a half day excursion and it was truly one of the best experiences. There were 5 elephants in total. 3 older females and 1 younger female who just had a baby elephant two months ago 😍 It was every bit as wonderful as it sounds. Feeding bananas into their powerful wrapping trunks, watching the baby elephant play and test it’s strength with Liam, giving them a mud bath… it was all a perfect experience. You have to just stand in awe of being able to share any time so close and personal to these gentle giants! Knowing that by being there you are aiding in their conservation and, for these 5 elephants, keeping their sanctuary protected really made all the difference. Eco tourism with a heart.

Absolutely made up looking at these magnificent beasts

The half day tour also included a break swim at the Pratu Muang Waterfall, which is used pretty much exclusively by this sanctuary and the hill tribe who live there. It was so nice to be able to splash around the current and enjoy this beautiful sight with the two other people in our group who decided to take advantage of it!

Who loves a waterfall?

After we said goodbye to the elephants we sat down to a lovely lunch prepared by some of the locals in the tribe – rice in banana leaves and a yummy dish made with squash and a potato curry with a side of wok cooked eggs. We left full and happy! It was only a matter of climbing back up a muddy mountain path and then clinging on for dear life in the back of a truck for an hour and a half before we were back in Chiang Mai. Life affirming excursion complete.

What a little cutie!

Liam: After some well earned chill time (who wouldn’t need to chill after an experience like the elephant sanctuary) we headed out to the Sunday night street market. Famous in Chiang Mai for being the biggest and best of its kind. We both love markets, but neither of us were expecting the size and scale of this monster. For 4 hours we browsed the streets, picking up little gifts and grazing on food along the way. Hectic. Colourful. Amazing smells. Locals and tourists alike. Everything you could ask for from a market. We even picked up mystery fruit (mangosteen and rambutan) for breakfast. Both of which were delicious!

The start of the monster market

Waking up late the following morning we took a much earned break from sightseeing. It wears you out! We managed to eat our fruit and go for a quiet 20 min river stroll before planning some of our travels further along the line. Why did we take such a chill morning? Because we had an evening cooking class of course! Getting picked up directly from our hostel we headed out to a local market, where we learned about fresh produce and Thai cuisine. Local style. None of that western style for tourists stuff (I’m talking about you Night Market Pad Thai!)

Gotta love a local produce market

After the market we headed to our class at Smile Organic Farm Cooking School. A brief introduction and we were out in the farm, picking our own vegetables, herbs and fresh spices for the lesson to follow. For the pair of us, being self professed foodies, this was very exciting. We learned to cook with the vibrant colours and flavours of Thai cuisine that you would expect. We both made spring rolls, a stir fry each (pad Thai and Thai basil), a soup each (tom yum and jungle) and, after making our own pastes, a curry each (khao soi and green). Full to the brim and thrilled with ourselves for the delicious food we made, we got escorted back to the hostel armed with our very own Thai cooking book covering every recipe the school offers. What an experience!

So impressed that Emily cooking this… would pay some good dollar for eats like that!

Emily: Our last day in Chiang Mai was spent completing the “monks trail” up to Wat Prah Lat on top of Doi Suthep, the city’s most iconic temple on its highest mountain. We were dropped off behind Chiang Mai zoo where after a ten minute walk up the hill we reached the entrance to the hike. About 45 minutes into the hike there’s another beautiful temple complex: Wat Pha Lat. This older and vine covered temple reminded us of days gone by playing Tomb Raider! We took a break to enjoy some Thai pastry that we brought along and the already impressive views of the city below.

Some real Tomb Raider shit right there!

The next hour or so we spent sweating our way up the trail, taking time to admire the colourful variety of new flowers, butterflies and birds that surrounded our trail! About twenty minutes from the top, the skies decided to open and we got absolutely drenched, all the while trying to scrape our way up the steep muddy steps. We finally made it to the temple on top and just like that, the rain stopped. This allowed us to view the pagoda in all of its golden splendour, and to see the city and wildlife below with vibrant clarity.

Amazing views

After enjoying our summit we had a delicious bowl of braised duck noodle soup and took a Songthaew (red open back tuk-tuk come truck) back down to our hostel where we spent the night packing to get ready for our next stop! The serene mountain city of Pai.

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Just a bit of gold at the Doi Suthep pagoda!