We arrived early after a delightful (but cold) sleeper train trip. After our comfortable trips in India, the Bangkok to Chiang Mai train was like experiencing super first class. Everything was clean (and the cleaners came through at least twice during the trip), modern and very comfortable.
Once out of the station we met a lovely local driver who got us to our hostel without a problem. He gave us a folder to read on the trip. This included brochures and ideas for our time in Chiang Mai followed by pages and pages of hand-written notes from other travelers who had hired him for day-trips or longer to show them around. He even stuck a few little photos of his grandkids in there too. It was pretty adorable. We took his card in case we wanted to go on an adventure with him.
HOSTEL by BED, Chiang Mai
We had such a fun time at this hostel* and met some really cool people. This was the first time we came across a hostel with double beds in dorms, so we had to give that a try and it worked out pretty well. We were treated to complimentary water and coffee, and every day we had a feast laid out for breakfast. It wasn’t the cheapest hostel in accommodation-heavy Chiang Mai, but we loved it.
Doing some stuff
We’ve spent heaps of our trip seeing stuff and we finally decided it was time to do some stuff. Chiang Mai boasts over 300 temples in the city, but we committed early on not to visit them all. Instead, we wanted to see what else the city had to offer, and we wanted to get some cool experiences under our belts. Check out what we did:
The most expensive experience: Visiting Jungle Elephant Sanctuary
So, the tickets to this were in hot demand and were way out of our budget, but we couldn’t come to Thailand and not visit some elephants, so we splurged. It was worth every single dollar. We had an absolute blast, from riding on the back of a ute down a steep dirt track to getting elephant trunks in our pockets, and even getting in the mud and water to play with them! You can read more and check out our vidoes over here.
There are loads of elephant experiences on offer in Chiang Mai and in fact across lots of South East Asia. For us, it was important to find a place that didn’t offer riding. There is plenty of information out there about the process these poor animals have to go through to endure tourists climbing all over them and we did not want to be involved in that.
The most hilarious experience: Enjoying a massage and a meal from an inmate
Walking through the old city in Chiang Mai you’re never more than 2 minutes away from a massage room. Unlike any other city we have visited though, a number of these businesses promote that they employ ex-inmates who have since been released from prison. There are a couple different ’brands’ who hire those who have been released but there is only one place where you can enjoy a meal and a massage from current inmates who are on vocational training.
We arrived about midday and were told there would be a two-hour wait. Lucky for us there is a cafe on-site with a small but affordable cafe, so we tucked into some coffees and waited for our turn.
The experience quickly became funny when we were called inside the massage area. The guard who ensures that everything runs smoothly provided us with some uniforms to wear, as Andrew and I would be in the same room together and we needed to be decent for our masseuses. She pulled me to one side, after a lengthy conversation with her colleague and a couple quick ‘up and down’ looks and said to me “Don’t worry Mrs. I have big size for you. You find me if these don’t fit.” She then thrust into my hand what I can only describe as the largest surgical scrubs I have ever seen in my life.
Don’t get me wrong. Being a bigger gal, I was a little worried at the prospect of a uniform and I appreciated the effort she made. When I got into the bathroom to change and found myself swimming in these clothes I had to giggle.
Once we were in the massage room and on the bed more hilarity ensued when Andrew and I clicked and crunched our way through the various positions of a traditional Thai massage. My masseuse was very impressed by how flexible I was. Andrews didn’t make any such claims.
The most ticklish experience: Fish Spa
So, I was pretty skeptical about sticking my feet in a fishbowl full of toe nibbling fish, but it was actually a pretty delightful experience. After washing our feet (Andrew could only use 1 foot, as he had a cut on the other) we plunged them into a fish tank and the fish got to work. Its a strange sensation, being nibbled between the toes, but once you get used to it its pretty relaxing. There were defiantly some squeals from both of us during the first few minutes. After half an hour we had endured as much nibbling as we could handle and slid out of the spa with fresh feet.
The most kick-ass experience: Muay Thai class
Despite doing a lot of walking recently I was ready to get a proper exercise-induced sweat-and-gasp on. My new mate Julia, from the hostel, invited me along to a class and I jumped at the chance. Andrew gave it a miss.
So, for 2 hours we shadow boxed, we ran and we punched and kicked. We enjoyed 2 trainers between three people in the class and we even got into the ring with some pads. It felt good to get some exercise in and was fun doing some kickboxing training at the Chiang Mai Muay Thai gym.
The most delicious experience: Learning to cook Thai food
Like elephant experiences, Chaing Mai also offers hundreds of cooking schools. Andrew and I were recommended a great little school just outside of the old city by one of our dorm mates (another reason hostels are excellent). We dragged Julia along too, and the three of us were the only participants for our session! The first part of the class included a visted the local markets to pick up fresh ingredients. Then we took off to the cooking school and got busy. We made a 5-course menu full of different items and even got the recipe book at the end. We left the cooking school full and happy.
The most square experience: Walking the moat
Chiang Mai is based around an old city which makes a perfect-ish square when you look at it on the map. The old city is surrounded by a moat, which is both an excellent navigational tool and quite a fun walk.
We wandered the square and looked at some temples, ate some good food, explored some markets and picked up coffee. Andrew even tried an original Red bull! The walk was just what I needed to sooth my aching muscles after Muay Thai training.
The most popular experience: Visiting the Saturday markets
Chaing Mai hosts about 11 markets per week, not including the small community markets where people buy fresh produce. We missed the biggest market, which is hosted on a Sunday, but we did manage to catch the Saturday market with some of our buddies from the hostel. The group of us picked up a Rót daang (literally ‘red truck’) and made our way to the markets.
We explored the foods, the clothes, the entertainment and got thoroughly wet when the evening rain came in. This is a risk when traveling during the rainy season… It was fun to watch the sellers change their items when the rain came. Bracelets suddenly became ponchos. Art suddenly became ponchos. If you wanted a plastic poncho, you were in the right place.
Once we had our fill of market life we found a delightful restaurant called ‘the faces’ and enjoyed a good meal and cheap beers into the evening.
The most highly scented experience: Flower Bowl blessing
We stumbled upon an annual festival that is held exclusively in Chiang Mai, the Inthakin. The festival takes place over eight days. From the twelfth day of the waning moon of the sixth lunar month. We attended on day seven. The Wat Chedi Luang Worawihan temple complex was absolutely pumping with people coming to offer flower bowls. We watched for around an hour as we walked around the complex. People were buying food, lighting incense, seeking blessings, and the atmosphere was intense but fun.
The trendiest experience: getting hair cuts in Chiang Mai
8 weeks into our trip and both of us are in need of a hair cut. So, we bit the bullet and found somewhere to help us out. We arrived at a good looking salon and are surprised that they are willing to cut our hair there and then. With limited English on their side and Thai on our side, we relied heavily on photos of our previous hair to help us out. Despite there being about seven staff on duty, only the boss is allowed to cut our hair. She did a good job and we were happy. The whole exercise took about two hours but only set us back $NZD32.
We couldn’t help but notice the boss at the salon, and other bosses elsewhere, carry their till with them in a bumbag slung across their chest. I guess that way you know everything that is going in or out at any given moment.
Wish we could stay
Chiang Mai offers hundreds of fun things to see and do for just about every budget. We could have easily stayed another week and still not done everything that caught our eye. From watching a Muay Thai fight to learning Thai massage, there is plenty to experience here in Thailand.
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