Heading north

I’ve been a little quieter over the last week, which is mainly because we’ve found ourselves fully immersed in the backpacker/travelling lifestyle. Which means I’ve spent the last few days generally doing one of three things; drinking, recovering from drinking, and then doing various activities. After our struggles in Bangkok the expereince has really come alive for us over the last few days, and on the eve of Songkran (at the time of writing), we’re having an early night to recharge, which gives me chance to fill you in!

After a 10 hour night bus, we arrived in Chiang Mai early on Thursday morning, and immediately felt more relaxed as we climbed off the coach. It didn’t occur to us at the time that the place was so serene because it was 6 in the morning, but we quickly realised that Chiang Mai is still a very busy city. That being said, it’s a city with a completely different vibe to Bangkok. Everything feels a bit more laid back and friendly here, life moves at a slower pace and it seems a million times less chaotic. The city itself is simple and easy to navigate, there’s the old town contained in a square that’s about 2km from corner to corner, so everything within it is walkable. The square is sealed in by historic walls and surrounded by a moat, and inside feels far more like a sleepy residential town than a busy city. Here you’ll find an endless supply of places to eat and drink; restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and clubs combine with street vendors (which are easier to use here as many have English menus) to leave you with an almost endless amount of choice. Keeping with the city’s laid back image, you’ll also find a large amount of massage parlours (we’re yet to expereince a Thai massage, but it’s on our list of things to do,) and in a lot of areas it’s very light on traffic. You’ll also find temples dotted around almost everywhere you go, both inside and outside of the square, so a spot of temple hopping is wonderfully easy here.

We arrived thinking the old city was all there really was to Chiang Mai, but this is not the case. The city has developed around the historic square, and there is plenty to do wherever you go. Outside of the centre the number of cars on the road swells, large motorways stretch out for miles, and everything feels a little more modern and alive. However Bangkok it isn’t, even outside of the sleepy centre the city retains its laid back, friendly vibes. And one of my favourite things about it is a distinct change in attitude of Tuk-Tuk drivers compared to those in Bangkok. Tuk-Tuks are still here (albeit in lesser volume), but here they seem far more like the helpful, simple transportation method they should be, and nothing like the tourist traps and nuisances they were in Bangkok. All in all it’s a far more comfortable expereince. 

When we first arrived we couldn’t help but feel a little lost, so we settled down for breakfast in a quiet little coffee shop and did some on-the-go research about where to go. Even after completing our research we didn’t see much in particular that day, we instead found ourselves wandering the city to get a feel of the place, which we did for a couple of hours until we were able to check into our hostel. We had decided to stay at Stamps Backpackers Hostel, which we’d found on Hostelworld, and proved to be a great choice. 

Throughout our time time in Bangkok we’d stayed in private rooms, so Stamps was our first taste of hostels, and the effect it has had on our trip has been huge. We’d had some concerns about how easy we’d find it to make friends, as when travelling in a couple it’s easy to stay in your comfort zone and not meet new people, as there’s always each other to talk to. Thankfully it’s very easy to make friends in a place like Stamps, sharing a bedroom with other people makes it pretty difficult not to talk to them, as well as a communal area where strangers will walk over to say hello (and usually a lot more after that, certainly later at night once the drinks start flowing). However the best social aspect from our perspective was the day trips organised through the hostel. It’s all done very easily – there’s a blackboard listing what’s happening, write your name down if you’re interested, and you’ll be picked up by a songthaew (a converted red pick up truck with benches in the back) and whisked off to wherever you’ve agreed to go. On our second day in Stamps we signed up for a trip to ‘The Grand Canyon Waterpark’ an inflatable obstacle course on water complete with jumps and slides. The day was great fun (although looking back I’m left with twinge of disappointment as I couldn’t bring myself to take the plunge on the park’s biggest jump) but the highlight for us was the group of people we met while doing so, as we’re still spending time with them (those that are still here) several days later. 

We’ve been up to plenty with our new friend group, from visiting Chiang Mai’s famous weekend markets, (markets are almost as common as temples here, you’ll find them everywhere, but the weekend ones are especially vast and impressive) to relaxing (recovering from a hangover) on a luxurious hotel rooftop pool which you can pay a small amount to use for the day. (This was also a great way to escape from the heat, Chiang Mai feels just as hot as Bangkok, maybe even hotter.) One evening we attended a Muay Thai boxing event, which is something I had wanted to do at the famous stadiums in Bangkok, but regretfully we didn’t have chance to do before heading to Chiang Mai. Especially regretfully as the event we did attend wasn’t all that impressive. It was clearly set up as a tourist spectacle, as we witnessed a parade of ‘VIPs” (tourists that had paid a bit more) brought into the ring before each fight to pose for a series of slightly uncomfortable photographs with the fighters. I’m not a paid Muay Thai fighter but if I was, I suspect conducting what is effectively a meet and greet in the middle of the ring moments before I fight the guy standing next to me might interfere with my focus somewhat. The fighters themselves almost all appeared to be children, which made us feel a little uneasy, especially with gambling going on in the stands, leaving me with the feeling the whole thing is set up to get tourists in the door who were looking to tick off one of the ‘things to do in Thailand’, as opposed to wanting to showcase a high standard of fights to real fans.

Another day our group rented out scooters and took a drive up to a nearby national park. Fran and I rode of the back of separate scooters, as neither of us had ridden scooters or motorbikes before, which after some initial fears (and on my scooter a small crunch along the side of a car, the driver of which was not too fussed) proved to be a very enjoyable expereince, as we headed through real sleepy Thai villages and towns, the first time I’ve been able to see rural, non-tourist orientated parts of Thailand. The journey ended in a picturesque ride through some mountain roads before we arrived at the National park. Mopeds and scooters seem to be a fantastic way to get out and see this beautiful country, so once we head to somewhere that isn’t quite so busy on the roads it’s something I plan on trying for myself. Once we entered the park itself we found a river, which lots of people were swimming in. Hot and sweaty from the ride up, we decided to join them, and whilst the cold water was refreshing, it was also far from clean; you’d lose sight of your hand after submerging it a few inches into the murky green water, and various pieces of rubbish (lots of cigarette ends) would be floating by regularly. This one certainly wasn’t a tourist thing. 

One of the highlights of Chiang Mai, and the trip so far, was a visit to an elephant sanctuary a short drive outside of the city. Elephant tourism is huge in this part of the world, so there’s lots of choice, although not all of it is strictly ethical; whilst I can’t claim to be an expert, there is a lot of talk of elephant rides being offered to tourists here, as well as generally being mistreated. We both hated the idea of supporting something which may not be treating these animals in the right way (which is exactly why after lots of thought and research we decided against going to Tiger Kingdom), so we spoke to our hostel and asked them to recommend one for us, which resulted in us heading out to the ‘Elephant Jungle Santuary’. We were only there for a couple of hours, but it was a fantastic experience, which after an informative and interesting briefing-of-sorts from one of the friendly staff members, involved feeding the elephants a small mountain of bananas (these things eat a lot), walking them down to a mud bath and getting dirty as we joined them in the mud, and then moving onto a pool of water to wash them. The whole expereince was fantastic, and ethically speaking it genuinely seemed like the elephants were well cared for and happy. There was certainly no riding or visible mistreatment of these wonderful creatures. Everyone will of course have their own opinions on these issues, and some may argue that even these ‘sanctuaries’ aren’t totally ethical, but as far as we’re concerned we were happy with our decision to go there.

And that’s it so far! I started writing this post before Songkran, and I’m finishing it on the morning of the second day, and I’ll say it’s certainly been an expereince so far, but I’ll save the rest for the next post, which hopefully won’t take quite as long as this one did. Thanks for reading!

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