Back to the beginning, Chiang Mai from a Travel stylists perspective!

Exploring Chiang Mai by TukTuk

It’s been almost 1 month since my departure from Australia and i’m currently in the middle of a travel meltdown with complications getting my Indian visa (more on that later!), buttttt i thought it was about time i went back to the beginning of the adventure and tell you all about Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Selling travel for a living often leaves you with pre conceived ideas about travel destinations, long before you ever have a chance to visit. You hear stories from clients and read brochures, but nothing can ever compare to actually visiting the country, town or city for real.

Arriving in Chiang Mai was a blow out and nothing like the image I had in my head. From what i’d heard (and how I’d been selling the destination for YEARS) was that it was a small city and less touristy than other popular Thai travel hot spots. A chance to get away from the hustle and bustle and explore some of the countryside.

I’d also read and heard it was a city enriched with tradition and surrounded by mountains and ancient hill tribes. So, combine all this and I’d imagined green hills & small cobblestone streets, less developed than Thailand’s other cities. Wrong!

Chiang Mai is actually Thailand’s second largest city with almost 2 million people in the whole Provence, and over 200,000 just in the city centre itself. While I was right about the green hills and the traditional elements (there are more than 300 temples in Chiang Mai alone!) it is wayyyy bigger than I thought, and a lot more developed. Cafes, restaurants, tour operators, guest houses and hotels line the streets, while countless tourists & backpackers explore on foot, scooter & tuk tuk.

Taken a little by surprise, but impressed none the less, I was keen to explore.

The accommodation options for Chiang Mai are many and varied From 5 star luxury properties (like the my personal favourite, The Chedi Club! http://www.ghmhotels.com/en/chedi-chiang-mai-thailand/home/#home ) to locally operated Guest Houses. While it would be nice to stay in upmarket resorts all the time, i know it’s not always realistic for everyone, so I was keen to look at the mid market properties. We chose a modest hotel called the Amora Tapae resort. Just a 3* hotel, but a great price and great feedback from colleagues previously.

After arriving from the airport a little hot and sweaty from the Thai heat & humidity, the lobby provided a great first impression. Bright, modern, clean & most importantly air conditioned.

The lobby to the Amora hotel Chiang Mai

While the rooms are basic (and maybe a little dated) they had all the creature comforts you’d expect. Air con, a big bathroom, tea & coffee making facilities and plenty of space for my bag (trust me, a trip like this ensues i have a lot of stuff. All necessities of course!)

A standard twin room!

The location was perfect, especially if you prefer to explore on foot. The proximity to the old town and the night markets means it’s the perfect base if you’re looking for something with all the comforts of home, that won’t leave your wallet empty.

The old town of Chiang Mai is the main attraction and well over 700 years old. A moate and wall used to surround the city and recently they restored one of the original entrances, the ‘Thapae gate’, which marks the start of the old town. This is where you find the smaller streets, with hidden sights to be seen.

Everywhere you turn there is a temple to visit, a cooking class to attend or a tour operator trying to tempt you with a ‘special morning discount’ or assurance that their tour was the best in town.

The first morning was spent arranging sights and activities for the duration of our stay, which I’d normally arrange for my clients prior to their arrival, but of course I’m not that organised myself. (Oops)

Sightseeing highlights in Chiang Mai are visits to the temples, surrounding hill tribes and villages, Elephant treks, riding and volunteering (like the Elephant Nature Park that I visited. See blog post ( http://mytravelust.com/2013/08/15/not-just-another-elephant-trek-in-thailand/ ), cooking classes, hiking and a night out to the Muay Thai (traditional Thai kickboxing)

Other than the elephant encounter we had at the Elephant Nature Park, we wanted a glimpse of the traditional way of life, so we visited a long neck hill tribe. We chose the particular trip as it was a little further away from town, bigger and more beautiful than the other villages (according to the sales girl!) and it was!

Green rice paddies surround the village and bamboo huts line the dirt roads, with all the women selling their wares and displaying the long neck tradition, with gold rings placed around their necks, slowly elongating their length.

While it was great to see and interact with the locals and the many children playing along the way, I felt a little strange wandering around their village and homes.

It was a little touristy for me, and I wasn’t sure how genuine it was, but as we’d not had a lot of time to look into the different villages available to visit, we took it for face value and it provided an insight into a very different way of life and an ancient tradition that is definitely worth a visit.

Chiang Mai, Hilltribe villages

With only 2 full days to spend in Chiang Mai, we were a little pressed for time and couldn’t do it all, but we explored the night markets with row upon row of bright street stalls, with sellers calling for you to purchase their food, home wares or fisherman’s pants (One of those fashion purchases you make on holidays, thinking ‘oh yeah, ill definitely wear these at home’, but then realise they should have stayed exactly where you found them…. On holidays!)

We also attended one of the local Muay Thai fights which are held nightly for tourists. Besides the round where they had 8 fighters in the ring blind folded, punching each other (and the referee) at random, which was pretty funny, the rest was uneventful and not really my thing.

As for eating and drinking Chiang Mai has plenty of choice. I generally try to avoid the travel guide recommended places and go on instinct, looking for restaurants that are busy with tourists and locals alike (usually a sign that the food is good).  A cleanish bathroom is always nice too (not always available in Asia!). There was nothing that particularly stood out for me in Chiang Mai, but we we’re only there a couple of nights, so if you’re ever in Chiang Mai I’d recommend following your nose, Butttt if its a good western style coffee you’re after we found the perfect place!

Ponganes espresso bar. An amazing western style coffee shop that serves delicious coffee that’s almost better than anything i’ve had in Australia. So, if you’re craving a good coffee to kick start your day, then check out their page below and find the place for yourself. Yum.

Ponganes espresso bar!

Chiang Mai is the kind of town that you could easily wake up in one morning, to find that it’s been a week or two or three, but with a rough schedule to keep it was time to keep moving.

I’d definitely recommend a visit to Chiang Mai, as it certainly does have charm to it, and delivers on everything the brochures promise.

Kate xx

MyTravelust Hot tip:

Have your Travel Stylist pre book a private arrival transfer prior to your departure. You’ll have someone to greet you and the taxi system is a little chaotic. You’ll save yourself a good hour and a half waiting for one
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Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos)… How NOT to do it overland!

It’s taken a day or two to recover and let my rattling bones settle, so only now am I ready to write about our journey through the North of Thailand and into Luang Prabang, Laos.

The South East Asia backpacker route is a buzz of eager foreigners escaping reality for weeks, months or even years on end.

‘Where have you been?’ ‘Where are you going? And ‘How long are you on the road’ are common opening liners when you meet someone new. Travellers tell about their epic journeys so far and are always keen to share their travel tales and do’s / don’ts they’ve picked up along the way, which is why I found it disturbing that we DIDN’T hear the next hot tip until it was too late… Much too late!

 

Tip #1 in getting from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang… Avoid the fast boats!!

 

When Swanny and I discussed the overland travel option from Thailand to Laos by boat, along the Mekong, I was picturing a big wooden, sun drenched boat where I could kick back, relax and let the world pass me by. Wrong!

It was supposed to have been a 3 day journey which would have been fine, but when we were presented with a fast boat option we thought… ‘Why spend 3 days travelling when you can spend 2!’ Especially when we had heard so many amazing things about Luang Prabang. So, with little debate we made the seemingly logical choice to take the fast boat. Wrong!

 

It became evident we’d chosen the road (and river) less travelled as soon as we started our trip….

Collected by minivan with an assortment of other travellers it became apparent we were the only ones (out of 15!) to have chosen the speed boat option. Then the tales of capsizing, boats flipping at high speeds, and a river full of obstacles started. (How had WE not heard about this? We were travel agents too!)

We ignored the chit chat and told ourselves ‘It can’t be THAT bad or they wouldn’t sell it! Right?’ Wrong!

Firstly, the 7hr mini van ride takes you to the Thai border town of Chiangkhong where an overnight stay is required. The only highlight, was a visit to the beautiful white Buddhist temple in Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Khun. The glitter sparkled and reflected off the temple, and it reminded me of snow glistening in the sunshine.

 

Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai.
Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai.

The ‘hotel’ in Chiangkhong was hideous and nameless (not a good sign).

I’ve stayed at some dumps in my time, but this takes the cake. Wooden planks for a mattress, a mouldy bath/toilet/shower combo, cold rice for dinner and stale bread for breakfast. Awesome!

Yuck!
Yuck!
It was only 6pm when we arrived, and there was no WAY we could have fallen to sleep naturally, so the only option…. Beer!
Beer, the only option!
Thank you Chang!

In an attempt to drown our sorrows and make the most of it, we headed off to the one and only bar. An English pub called The Hub Pub.

Set up by an Englishman (Alan) who holds the Guinness World record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe, by bicycle!

A long neck or two later Swanny unleashed her ‘Rapping Travel Agent’ You Tube clip on them all and managed to score a spot on the wall for her autograph.

The rapping travel agent! Kel Swan
The rapping travel agent! Kel Swan

Haven’t seen it? Check out her link: The Rapping Travel Agent

Anyway, the beer did the trick and we managed to have a reasonable nights sleep before hitting the road (and the boat) to Luang Prabang.

I left the hotel with mixed emotions. On one hand i was glad that we didn’t have to endure another nights sleep in seedy accommodation, but on the other I was a little anxious about the boat trip ahead of us.

We made it through the Thailand and Laos border crossing without any dramas, and it again became obvious that our choice of transport wasn’t popular. There were literally a hundred or more backpackers (identified by the uniform of backpack, hiking boots and khaki pants of course) arriving into Laos that morning and exactly 5 of us were taking the fast boat… FIVE! (Not great odds!).

It was at this point that I caught a glimpse of the speed boat for the 1st time. What the??

 

What the? WHY had i not seen this photo at the time of booking?
What the? WHY had i not seen this photo at the time of booking?

Basically the ‘speed boat’ was a traditional long tail wooden boat, with a juiced up engine that runs off LPG Gas! The passengers in the picture were wearing helmets and life jackets and seemed to be sitting in a 40cm x 40cm section of floor space. Ummmmm??

My gut instinct was screaming for us to run away, but we couldn’t. It was too late. We were en-route to the boat and besides, there were other people doing it (including locals), so it reallllllly couldn’t be that bad….Could it?

Yep… It IS that bad!

There are literally no words for the journey itself so let me paint you a picture.

– Imagine sitting in a convertible with the top down. The sun is fierce and its about 35 degrees celsius at 10am. (And there is no option to put the top back on… there is no top).

– You don’t have a seat, just a small square of wood that is also the floor. Your knees are bent up around your shoulders (or ears, depending on how tall you are!)

– You’re wondering why the locals are wearing motorcycle helmets, but no one gives you one.

– You’re humming along at about 80km per hour (maybe faster) with the wind howling through your hair, but the road isn’t smooth, it’s bumpy. Very bumpy!

– Oh and did i mention the road was in flood and full of debris like logs, rubbish, a rouge washing machine or two and rocks the size of small houses to dodge and avoid? Well… It was.

Now, when you’ve taken all of that in. Close your eyes and imagine it.

Now imagine it for 7 hours!!!!

Your only reprieve is the music blasting through your ipod to drown out the engine noise, the 6 short pit stops (literally) of about 5 minutes each to swap over the gas bottles (that also sit way too close to comfort) and a quick lunch break at a riverside ‘Bistro’, that served cold fried rice, warm coke and a had a hole in the deck for a toilet.

That was our journey.

Our boat... before the other 5 people got in!
Our boat… before the other 6 people got in!
The helmets that the locals carried and wore with them... Ours we're handed to us about half way!
The helmets that the locals carried and wore … Ours we’re handed to us about half way!
The face of fear!
The face of fear!
The boats!
The boats!
Needless to say the first glimpse of Luang Prabang as we rounded a corner was triumphant. Yes, our legs and asses were completely numb. Our faces & shoulders red raw from the sun AND we had to carry our bags up a small cliff face to reach the road, but we made it. We’d survived!!
Arriving into Luang Prabang! Pheeew
Arriving into Luang Prabang! Pheeew

The rest of our evening was a complete blur as we waited for our bones to stop aching and the hum of the speedboat to stop ringing in our ears, but as fragile as we were, Swanny and I still managed to have a laugh about it. (We had to laugh otherwise we would have cried).

We’ve since heard stories that the overnight bus was just as frightening and that the slow boats can be a pain in the ass too (no pun intended) but now that i’ve made the journey and lived to tell the tale, My #1 tip for travelling overland from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang… Don’t! Pay the $100 and fly.

 

Kate xx

Not just another Elephant Trek in Thailand!

Happy close and personal
Up close and personal!

Elephant Nature Park  – Chiang Mai

12th of August 2013

Elephants! Earths largest land mammal and my Mums animal obsession. (Seriously… she’ll literally scream with excitement when there is anything to do with an elephant on TV or in a movie!)

It would be almost unheard of to come to Thailand and not have at least 1 interactive experience with an Elephant, but Swanny and I wanted to choose wisely.

Elephants fascinate me and I’d ridden Elephants in Phuket previously, and to be honest I didn’t love it. I’d since read about safari parks and trekking companies in Thailand mistreating their Elephants, so after a hot tip from a friend of Swan’s we came across the Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai.

It’s a unique sanctuary for Asian Elephants in Northern Thailand, and was founded in 1992 by an award-winning conservationist ‘Lek’, by rescuing injured and mistreated Elephants. With the Asian Elephant numbers dropping from over 100,000 last century to just 3000 today, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to see the Elephants up close, and also do our part to support a great cause.

As we purchased the tickets for our full day at the park, the sales assistant kept saying ‘no riding’,’ no riding’! We assured her that we didn’t want to ride the Elephants and that we understood what their park was about. I’m assuming they are more used to travelers wanting their ½ hr ride on an Elephants back and a cool photo.

Arriving at the park, Lek’s passion for rescuing, rehabilitating and conserving the Asian Elephant is evident. The park is HUGE and with over 30 Elephants in her care, it isn’t long until we are eye to eye with them. (Well, almost!). Hand feeding an 80yr old Elephant is a pretty special moment, although their trunks are kind of freaky and seem to have a mind of their own.

Lunch time
Lunch time
That wandering trunk!
That wandering trunk!

Each of the rescued Elephants has their story about why they we’re rescued. Like ‘Hope’ the orphaned baby Elephant who was bottle-fed and nursed back to health after being rescued from a trekking camp after his Mum passed away. Hope is now a teenager and still so naughty that he’s the only Elephant in the sanctuary who has to wear a bell, to keep tabs on his whereabouts!

Some of the rescue stories move you to tears. Overworked, Underfed, and tortured until they become submissive… The treatment of some of these poor creatures is horrendous, so I’m thankful that a sanctuary like this exists.

After a traditional Thai lunch we are back out in the field, walking with the Elephants. We learned about the small herds that had formed within the park, something that nature denied these guys when they we’re put to work for logging and trekking companies before arriving at their new home.

Having a scratch!
Having a scratch!
Their Sanctuary!

We then had an opportunity to bathe the Elephants in the river, which was as hands on as you can get. Feeling their rough skin under your finger tips, and watching them frolic in the water with the other volunteers, is an experience that riding an Elephant in a trekking camp just won’t give you, and something I’ll remember for a long long time.

Bathing the Elephants!
Bathing the Elephants!
Swanny & I
Swanny & I

Don’t get me wrong…. Not all of the trekking companies on Thailand mistreat their Elephants, but if you want a unique Elephant encounter and wish to know that the money you’re spending is going to a great cause then I recommend a visit to the Elephant Nature Park.

I can honestly say that when you look in these Elephants eyes, they are happy.

Kate xx

Happy in their new home!
Happy in their new home!

Going to Chiang Mai? How you can help!

You can spend a day at the park like we did or you can do an overnight stay to learn even more. The park runs mostly off volunteers so run weeklong volunteering programs, which would be pretty special if you have the time.

You can also foster an elephant or make a donation by visiting their site.

www.saveelephant.org