Chiang Mai

I bought my bus ticket to Chiang Mai on a whim.

I booked the ticket through the hostel and, at around 6 pm, a man picked me up to take me to the “bus station”. I got into a van and we drove around the corner (I literally could have walked there) at which point he told me to get out. I was so confused. No one else got out of the van. Was this a scam? Should I be concerned?

He walked up to a lady behind a counter, got my tickets and brought me a plastic lawn chair and a juice box. He told me to sit on the sidewalk and wait until my bus departed in 30 minutes. I was so confused but did as I was told – I sat in that plastic chair and drank my juice box on a sidewalk in Bangkok.

Fortunately, there were other foreigners around who looked like they were traveling. Turns out they were heading to Chiang Mai as well, so I was in the right place. Or at least lost with some other foreigners. After way longer than 30 minutes, another guy came around the corner yelling CHIANG MAI! CHIANG MAI! CHIANG MAI! We took that as a cue to follow him as he led us down a really dark, scary alleyway to an even darker, scarier parking lot where we found the bus waiting for us. I was a little sketched out at this point, but the bus ended up being pretty nice. Comfy seats that reclined and even wifi that almost worked. It was a bizarre start to my Chiang Mai adventure, but I was happy to finally be on my way.

We arrived in Chiang Mai around 7 am the next morning and I made my way to the hostel to drop off my backpack. I didn’t have any plans for the day, so I decided to take it easy. I found a fantastic breakfast place and enjoyed walking around the old city – exploring markets and temples as I stumbled upon them.

I went back to the hostel later in the afternoon hoping to meet some people, but the atmosphere was dead and somewhat awkward. While I almost always have amazing experiences at hostels, this one was a miss. I wasn’t able to meet anyone, the showers were dirty and the room situation wasn’t ideal. But the great thing about hostels is you can easily change your plans. After one night in that hostel, I decided it wasn’t working for me so I told reception my plans had changed and they refunded me for the remaining nights I booked. I checked into another hostel that day and instantly knew that I was going to enjoy it much more.

While it was hard to meet people in the first hostel, at the second one I met two American girls from Colorado as I was checking in who, after knowing me for approximately 2 minutes, invited me on a hike that day! I dropped off my backpack, laced up my hiking boots and met them in the lobby. We got an Uber from the hostel to take us part way up a mountain, where we started our hike on a very hard-to-find trail.

Despite being hard to find, the trail was incredible, taking us to a small temple with fantastic views of the city below before starting a steep climb up the mountain through dense jungle. It was a hot and challenging climb, but when we reached Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep at the top of the mountain, one of the most famous temples in Chiang Mai, we knew it was worth the sweat. The temple itself was absolutely stunning and I found it especially moving to experience the beautiful traditions of a religion so different from the one I grew up with on Christmas Day.

I was tired and sore after hiking to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, but hiking was the reason I came here and the next morning a songthaew (a red pickup truck with benches in the bed for passengers) picked me up bright and early for a three day jungle trek. As much as I was loving Chiang Mai, I was so excited to get out of the city and into the mountains for a few days! After picking up a few other people, we headed into the countryside, driving for about 2 hours until we reached a small town where we stopped for lunch and met up with some other people who were joining our trek.

After lunch we finally started the trek, walking through fields and making our way up gentle slopes into the mountains. By early evening, we made it to the Hill Tribe village on top of a mountain where we spent the night. There are many indigenous Hill Tribes that call these mountains home and it was important to me to select a trek that did not involve tours of these villages. I personally am uncomfortable paying money to watch locals put on a cultural show to make a living. While the tour I selected did involve staying in a Hill Tribe village one night (and I’m sure they received some commission) we had very little interaction with the locals. We basically arrived, ate dinner and went to sleep. Although we wren’t in the village long, we were able to take in some of the stunning views. The sunset was spectacular and the stars, even better.

We slept on the floor of a hut that night and, surprisingly, I slept incredibly well. We woke up early the next morning to watch the sunrise before having breakfast to fuel up for the day ahead. We hiked all morning until reaching another Hill Tribe village, where we took a short detour to explore a waterfall and have lunch. After a refreshing break, our group split into two. Most people signed up for a different trek that was only two days and one night, so they headed back down the mountain to Chiang Mai. I, along with two people from the Netherlands (who I quickly became friends with), continued on with our tour guide for another night in the jungle.

Once we went separate ways, the jungle got much denser and the trekking more challenging as our guide used his machete to clear the trail. We stopped for a short break at another waterfall before taking on the last stretch of the trek to the jungle camp.

Once we made it to the camp, our tour guide cooked us dinner over the fire. I don’t know how he did it, but the food was incredible! The four of us feasted on fresh food from the jungle and as night fell, we started a bonfire. Our tour guide pulled out some Chang beers for us and we stayed up late chatting around the fire, sharing stories about our cultures and lives back home.

The next morning we made our way to the bottom of the mountain and headed to an elephant sanctuary. Elephant sanctuaries are wildly popular in Thailand, but many of them are not ethical and abuse the animals. I was careful in selecting a tour that visited an ethical elephant sanctuary (every single tour visited one) and I wanted to make sure these elephants were really rescued, that they were treated well and that tourists were not allowed to ride them. And while the sanctuary we visited seemed to meet all of my requirements, it still made me a bit uneasy. While it was amazing being up close to these gentle giants, after petting one of the elephants, I decided that was enough for me.


Just petting an elephant

After lunch at the elephant sanctuary, we headed back to Chiang Mai where we got cleaned up before a night on the town. We started the night at a fancy bar with craft beer before making our way across town in a tuk tuk. We went to a fantastic restaurant for dinner and then finished the night at an outdoor bar. Chiang Mai is well known for it’s nightlife and it was a great way to end my time in this unique traditional, yet contemporary city. I wish I could’ve stayed longer, but it was time to head to Pai.

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