Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai – Thailand

Chiang Mai is a large city in the mountains of northern Thailand popular with tourists for its historical walled city and as a destination to visit a wide range of elephant parks.

After several days weighing up the pros and cons between taking a two day slow boat for £25 or a one hour flight for £90 to get us from Luang Prabang in Laos to Chiang Mai we essentially ended up flipping a coin. On a backpacker budget we definitely should’ve taken the boat but after a week of downpours the idea of sitting on a very basic wooden boat looking out at yet more rain for 2 days did nothing for our moods. The flight came out on top, which frankly, I was quite glad about.

The airport in Luang Prabang was tiny, with only a handful of souvenir shops to browse, so we bought some snacks and waited to board our plane. Tom’s not a huge fan of flying in general and on this occasion he was worse than ever as he’d never been on a propeller plane before. It probably didn’t help that he’d been Googling the crash rate of Laos Airlines so by the time take off came around he was sweating profusely and gripping onto me with wet palms. I thought I was meant to be the one with anxiety issues!

For once the weather was clear and the benefit of being in a smaller plane was that we flew at a lower altitude and could take in the incredible scenery from above. We made it through a spot of turbulence as we approached Thailand and practically just as we landed the rain set in. Bloody typical!

We took a taxi to the Box Hostel n Café and as we arrived the owner had just baked a fresh batch of cookies and the whole place smelt incredible. We checked into our 10 bed dorm which was nice and modern – big beds with curtains, ample storage and a balcony – then popped back down to the café to have some lunch. We shared tuna mayo and egg mayo toasties and, wowzers, they were so amazing. Tuna mayo is a bit of a weird thing to miss but when you’ve not had a certain flavour in months it just tastes so incredible. We of course sampled the warm cookies and then Facetimed Tom’s sister, Jo, for an hour, getting the lowdown on what she got up to when she was in Chiang Mai the previous year. Horrified to hear she was only spending a few pounds on her ‘cheap days’ compared to us meeting our £25 a day budget regularly (or exceeding it), we realised we needed to crack down on our spending. Aka, no more yummy tuna mayo toasties and cookies! Sob.

The rain had eased so we headed out to explore the walled city of Chiang Mai and came across the large temple complex of Wat Phra Singh. We wandered around, being eaten by mosquitos as we went, and watched as young monks entered one of the temples for their evening lessons. We then bumped into a couple we’d been tubing with in Vang Vieng so had a little catch up and shared our Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang journey horror stories.

With Jo in our ears, we made our way to a night market on the opposite side of the city for dinner. It’s not like we’d been dining at the flashest places… we normally sought out basic looking restaurants with meals below £5, but we’d often shy away from street food stalls on a hygiene basis. So, we did a quick recce to see what looked good and would be cooked fresh, and ordered some pork gyozas to share (yummy). Once we’d had those, Tom got a Pad Thai (well two, as the first one came with dried shrimp in which he’s allergic to) and I went for fried veg with rice. With two beers from the 7eleven next door our total expenditure came to £3 each, so not bad*. We walked our meals off for an hour to get back to the hostel and I researched elephant sanctuaries in bed. *Update: we ate at the same night market the next evening but Tom tried food from a different vendor and enjoyed diarrhoea for the next two weeks solid (or lack thereof). So it’s a bit of a lottery!

After a poor night’s sleep due to dorm room snorers and people banging about at 3am, we got up and went down for breakfast in the kitchen. We were brought fried eggs with a tasty dressed salad and helped ourselves to toast. The cherry on top was that they had oats and milk so I made porridge in the microwave. Again, it tasted soooo good after not having porridge in forever!

We spent the day further exploring Chiang Mai and visited a large indoor market where we both became poncho wankers after deciding in Laos that our raincoats were useless. I went for the least offensive colour but Tom was feeling adventurous and opted for fluorescent orange. Lucky for us they passed the test, keeping both us and our belongings dry, as we got stuck in an absolute downpour on our way home.

After lots of research I finally decided on an elephant sanctuary for us to visit. The tourist trend in Thailand has now moved away from elephant riding as the cruelty the animals were subjected to at the riding camps is now widely known, but it’s hard to know which ones are actually ‘sanctuaries’. I looked into several different ones and read between the lines on their websites e.g. lots say ‘no riding’ all over the homepage but then when you read the itineraries or browse their gallery it tells a different story. Another factor was cost – if it’s too cheap it probably isn’t going to be great. I used the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary as a benchmark as I’d heard really good things about it and they’re well-known for being legit, but I didn’t want to go there as they have really large tour groups. For the same price I opted for Blue Daily Elephant Care. Reviews sounded promising, the itineraries were similar in standard and what probably swayed it was the fact they have a baby, so I booked a half-day session for the following day for £38 each. This package included collection and drop off from our hotel, dinner and refreshments, two feeds of the elephants, making elephant snacks, a jungle trek with the elephants and bathing them in a river.

We were collected by minibus at midday and set off on a 2 hour journey up into the highlands with a family of 4 Americans who now lived in Hong Kong and were holidaying in Thailand. Arriving at the sanctuary we put on wellies and got our first glimpse of the gorgeous 5 month old baby, Valentine, and his mum.

They were both in a sheltered enclosure and our guide went straight in and fussed the baby and mum, who pushed and grabbed at him with her trunk. He said she was ‘looking for bananas’ but I think she was trying to get him away. I’d read that mothers can be fiercely protective of their babies so I was surprised when he invited the two young children to enter the enclosure with him. The kids were both reluctant and looked to their parents for reassurance who just nodded.

The guide distracted the mother with food whilst we all had a good fuss and play with the baby, then he brought over a basket full of bananas and showed us how to feed them both. We had to peel the bananas for the baby as he couldn’t eat through the skin yet and was still mainly fed by his mother’s milk. We could either place the banana straight into their mouths, or just let them grab it with their trunk. Their trunks are so agile and they gripped really tightly, sucking like a hoover nozzle to hold onto the banana. Valentine didn’t quite have full control of his trunk yet so he dropped a few and stumbled around the place. Too cute!

Next we headed to a separate area where we ground up steamed rice, rice seed, banana and tamarind in a huge wooden pestle and mortar and formed the mush into balls as a nutritious snack. Once ready, we fed these to a group of 3 elephants who were stood waiting patiently behind a log. It was a bit of a family affair as we were greeted by Valentine’s sister – a 3 year old female, their grandma – a 51 year old female and then a huge 14 year old male with giant tusks. They were all keen for the snacks which also included more bananas and some sugar cane. As could be expected, the male was quite bolshy and used his size to push the other two out of the way. This was quite intimidating as they came at you with their giant trunks, trying to get into your basket to help themselves, but as long as you kept your basket at a distance and didn’t give in it was quite easy to go between each of them and place the food straight into their mouths.

Once they’d had their fill and we were now a little more comfortable around them the youngest was brought around and we were able to pose for photos with her hugging us with her trunk and planting a huge slobbery kiss on our cheeks. It was amazing how precise she was, placing her trunk perfectly on my cheek and sucking to make a loud kiss noise – so funny. In fact, she sucked so hard I’m surprised I didn’t have a love bite!

The elephants didn’t seem too interested in trekking with us through the jungle so we set off at a very slow pace with their keepers or ‘mahouts’ giving encouragement with verbal grunts. Again, it was quite intimidating to be walking along next to a giant elephant, sometimes with them following right behind you. I was conscious that they could swing their head or trample me in a heartbeat, but they were slow and steady with their steps and if ever you were in their way they either stopped or changed direction. The male on the other hand decided to work to his own agenda and went off into the undergrowth, trumpeting and pushing over trees as he went. The two remaining females ambled along, stopping every now and then for a scratch on a tree.

After half an hour or so we made it down to a small stream and the elephants were straight in. The water was far from warm but I wasn’t hanging about; I stripped down to my swimming costume, kicked off my wellies and went in to join them. Buckets and brushes were provided to help wash the mud and dust from the elephants which they use to protect their skin from the sun and I was in my element. Tom joined after a while and was a little reluctant (especially when one started pooping into the water and its mahout picked up the balls of dung and threw it onto the bank) but when they began playfully spraying water at us I think he loosened up.

We wandered back to the camp and fed the elephants some more bananas and sugar cane, now much more confident with them, then showered and changed ready for dinner. I briefly Facetimed my parents to show them the elephants in the distance and then enjoyed some fried chicken, potato curry, rice and fruit. We said our farewells to the elephants and little baby Valentine then set off back to Chiang Mai.

I had an amazing time at the sanctuary and it was so incredible to be up close and personal with such magnificent creatures – truly an unforgettable experience. I would say though (call me a cynic) that even after all my research we did question the level of care the elephants received. When talking with our guide he mentioned that they stop working around the age of 60 so I asked what happens to them at retirement to which he replied  that they are sent to the Queen Mother’s elephant conservation centre to enjoy their final years, aka a proper sanctuary. It was also evident that the elephants followed a series of commands and performed tricks (e.g. hugging, kissing, spraying water) and I question whether they learnt these behaviours via reward or punishment. Bearing this in mind, they all seemed to be in good condition, had no ropes or chains or any marks on them and they’ve been spared from lives in logging or riding camps.

Back in Chiang Mai we bought ham and cheese toasties from 7eleven upon Tom’s sister’s recommendation, some crisps and chocolate and had a little feast back at the hostel. Jo was certainly onto something – these warm, melty toasties which cost about 25p were super yummy and would serve to be our go-to snack for the rest of our time in Thailand. Thanks Jo!

Our next destination on our trip would be Phuket in southern Thailand but it was cheaper to fly from Chiang Rai, a city relatively near to us, so we booked the flights and a £3 coach for the next morning. Tom was still dealing with the after effects of his street food despite having taken an Imodium, so it was a bit hit and miss as to whether we would actually board the bus with him flitting off to the toilet every 5 minutes at 20 cents per poop. Tom’s reluctance to take any form of medication meant I had to force him to take another Imodium (the correct dose for an adult) and finally his bowels settled for a while. The journey took 4 hours and we drove through more incredible mountain scenery in the clouds.

Arriving in Chiang Rai we walked to Connect Hostel and had a lovely welcome from its owners and were shown to our 6 bed dorm which was nice and modern but had a bit of a fusty smell. We met a Californian woman who’d also just arrived and decided to head to Chiang Rai’s main attraction together, Wat Rong Khun or the ‘White Temple’.

We took a very run down public bus which looked and sounded like it would fall apart at any moment. On a busy main road the conductor pointed towards the White Temple and ushered us off the bus whilst it was still moving, pretty standard. The temple is very different to others in Asia as it is actually a privately-owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple. It is white (obviously) and decorated with shimmering tiles and morbid sculptures including hands reaching out of a lake, skeletons, skulls and demons – very bizarre.

Tom couldn’t have been less of a fan of the place (potentially attributed to his stomach issues) and we shot around the whole exhibit within about 30 minutes. At the end there is the option to purchase a decorative pendant, write your name on it, and hang it on a metal tree. These are then added to the exhibit to form the ceilings of the walkways which move elegantly in the breeze. It was a minimal cost so we decided to get one and leave our mark.

To get back we hailed down a taxi in the form of a pick-up truck (or as I like to call them – truck-trucks) and jumped in the back with some locals and for a fixed fee of 20 baht each we were dropped near the bus station. Tom was still feeling under the weather so I researched some restaurant options in Chiang Rai (there weren’t many) and decided we should treat ourselves to pizza. We headed to Chef Sasa which was clearly a popular place as we took the last table and within minutes there was a queue out the door. Promising. The restaurant was run by an Italian guy and the stone baked pizzas were delicious, prompting Tom to perk up a little. We browsed a nearby night market briefly before heading back to the hostel where we chatted with our roommates and packed for our flight the following morning.

Next stop… Phuket!

See ya later, Sophie x

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