If you asked me to choose my favorite part of the trip, it’s probably going to be the time spent in Chiang Mai. Northern Thai food was already high on my food list before going. Chiang Mai [Original right?] and Tarad serve up pretty authentic eats in Portland, so I was pretty psyched, food-wise. Add in some of the best weather with a much more approachable city in terms of size and population, and it was kind of a perfect match.
We arrived pretty late. Our hotel, Raming Lodge Hotel [you can giggle, I totally did], was right on the near edge of the night market and across the street from one of the old city gates. In terms of location, it was pretty sweet. The actual hotel, though, was very middle of the road. Safe and relatively clean, but with the smell of mold. This hotel drove home the notion that picking a hotel that didn’t have outdoor hallways would be ideal. The rooms never feel dry. Ever. Thus the mold smell. Couple that with the bed that felt like plywood, and well…yeah.
The first day was spent walking most of the old city. It’s surrounded by a moat and the remains of the wall. You know I’m a sucker for a good moat. I feel like every block had a wat. If you don’t get as much time to check them out in Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the spot. It never stopped feeling weird to take off your shoes and step inside. It feels like you’re interrupting. It’s not like I’m busting in on Catholic mass regularly, y’know? They are beautiful and ornate, though. In any one wat, I saw more buddhas than I had in my life previously. The Chiang Mai Historical Centre was definitely worth checking out. It was a very modern museum, and had plenty of interactive learning opportunities. If you’re like me, and you really don’t know a ton about Thai history and culture, it’s worth checking out.
I feel like we walked all over the city that day. The weather was slightly more pleasant since Chiang Mai is in the northern part of the country. We ended up eating at a little restaurant. I had a delicious chicken noodle bowl and one of the largest Thai teas to date. The service was super friendly, too. Most people would show up on their motorbikes, pick some soup up to go, and then head out on their merry way. Watching hot broth served in a plastic sack is a trip. I never actually bought any for take away, but I was amazed all the same.
The weather turned stormy that night. It was a new experience for sure. It’s not cold, at all, but the wind gets blowing that rain around pretty good. It’s that tropical fat rain, and it just isn’t nearly as functional to the rain I’m used to in Portland. The street we stayed on was lined with a ton of dive bars and massage parlors. You can imagine how this is at night, but it’s low season so the ratio of ladies for hire to actual patrons is pretty low. We kind of had our eye on the Mexican food place called El Diablo we saw on the drive into the city from the airport. I know it seems silly, but there is something obscenely intriguing about foreign food in a foreign place [Side note: We did find a place that sold a burrito in Rome last year, but it was completely out of the way, and nearly $20.]. They make their own corn chips there, which were akin to Fritos. The salsa? Marinara with a hint of Thai chilies. It’s exactly what you think of when you’re at a Mexican restaurant…in Thailand. My chicken quesadilla was pretty good. I know it seems pretty hard to screw up a quesadilla, but it can be done. The restaurant owner is apparently from New Orleans, and also owns a Southern restaurant. It’s an interesting place.
The highlight of almost the entire trip came the next day. The Elephant Nature Park. We scheduled a day trip, but you can also set up overnights or extended stays to volunteer. Someone from the park and a driver come to your hotel in the morning, picking you and whatever group is going with you that day. On the 45ish minute drive you watch a documentary about what life is like for elephants in Thailand and a little bit about what this park and it’s owner are trying to do to save them. Low season again has huge perks. The group had about 11 in it, and there weren’t many groups at the park in general. It was glorious. You show up to the park in the middle of the jungle, and are almost immediately thrust in front of elephants with huge baskets of fruit to feed them. Since almost all of these elephants are rescued, they all generally have some hardship in their past. Some were exploited in tourism, others in the logging industry. The blind elephants were super sweet. You had to touch their trunks to let them know you were there with food, and then place it in the crook of the trunk for them. It was so fun. The group:elephant ratio is just perfect. I never once felt rushed along or like I wasn’t getting to experience things first hand.
Have you ever seen a two week old elephant before? It’s seriously the cutest thing. We got to see him and the four month old baby on a walk around the park. The eldest elephant, 89 years old, was out in the park for us to come up to and pet. Pet? Is that what you do to elephants? Touch? Pat? Generally hang out with? It’s intimidating to stand next to their giant, yet gentle animals. After touring the rest of the park, we were treated to the biggest, most delicious Thai food buffet. I didn’t even get to try everything before my plate was overflowing. Did I mention this park is also a dog sanctuary, too? Over 250 dogs. Many of the friendly ones are allowed to run around the park as they want. That meant I could get my dog fix while there. Two birds, one stone. I was into it. After lunch you wade out into the river with three of the elephants for bathing time — aka throwing buckets of water on their backs while they eat more fruit. Afterward they’ll either keep playing in the river or head straight to the mud pile. Natural sunblock. One of the elephants we bathed was a victim of a land mine. It was the saddest thing to see what had been done to her, but she seemed to be one of the happiest elephants out. It was a fantastic experience. After snacks, another documentary, and fruit feeding, we were taken back to our hotels. A day trip lasts from about 8am-5pm.
The following morning yielded one hell of a breakfast find. Rote Yiam has a sign saying they are the only Chiang Mai noodle shop that serves high quality beef. They aren’t joking. It was seriously tender beef. It reminded me a bit of a pot roast in terms of tenderness and level of comfort. I don’t need tendons and meatballs and all that every time. The broth was so rich and dark. I had become a believer of the whole “put sugar in your noodles” thing at this point. They embrace all of the flavor profiles, and it really does bring these bowls of soup to a new level when you try customizing things yourself. Again, two bowls of the stuff for like 100 baht. $3? Take that Egg McMuffin. We ended up eating here two mornings in a row, grabbing an iced coffee, and stopping at the donut cart on the walk back to the hotel. You try saying no to fried dough made streetside. It’s hard.
We switched hotels to one on the night market street the next day, and hit up a taxi to take us to the Chiang Mai zoo. The taxi insisted that he wait for us to go to the zoo, and he’d take us back. He had zero idea of when we’d be back, but he’d wait anyway. It was absolutely worth the price, too. There was no price gouging. Slow season’s perks. I can’t speak about them enough. The zoo was a trip and a half. $3 to get in. $3 if you wanted to see the panda exhibit [is that even a question?]. We felt like the only people in the zoo on more than one occasion. The entirety of the park feels like it’s uphill and the exhibits are so far apart that there are trams to take you between them, unless you’re crazy like we were and prefer to walk. A lot. I’d say we spent more time walking than we did at the actual exhibits. If you really spend time at each exhibit, you can see the cultural differences at every turn. Honor system for payment? Check. Allowing you to stick your arm in a hippos mouth if you’re so inclined with no one to stop you? Check. Realizing that if that orangutang/tiger/penguin really wanted to, they could probably get out? Check. Several exhibits were closed for remodeling, but instead of blocking off your path, you’ll just dodge cement trucks and try not to fall in holes or slip on gravel. Do you want to feed a jaguar raw meat on a stick? Of course you do. Did you see that 10 inch orb spider in the bird exhibit hanging in a tree at head height? Us too. After being at the elephant nature park the day before, it really drilled home the obviousness of how animals look when they’re not in ideal situations. So many stressed animals. Because of a serious lack of signage, we spent a good 20 minutes just being lost. Our new taxi driver friend waited a good four hours until he could take us back to the hotel. We didn’t even go check out the aquarium on site, too. That would have been one long day.
We booked all our Cambodia stuff when we got back to the new hotel [Royal Princess] since we would be checking out the next day. The night market is a huge spectacle. I found not a single thing I wanted to buy, but I can see how tourists would be into it. Every screen printed t-shirt, fake purse, and wooden carving can be found. Restaurants are all along the back section of the market area, but send someone how to try and rope you in much like people do in Miami Beach. It’s rather obnoxious. We tucked into a little nook off the main area to pick up some Khao Soi and watermelon fruit shakes. The hotel sits on the night market street, so we sat on the steps for a good portion of the evening. A group of university students studying tourism asked to interview us. It involved a survey on our thoughts on Chiang Mai and the night market, and a video interview. It’s crazy to think some Thai students possibly watched us in their classroom. It was such a fun and unforgettable interaction. I’d much rather interact with the people that live in the city than buy silly little trinkets.
Up next? Cambodia.