Unexpectedly, one of the coolest cities I have ever been to.
Recommended to us by friends, we stayed at Libra Guesthouse. At approximately $10 a night, this was hands down one of the best places we stayed during our southeast Asian journey. The family running the hostel are incredible. When we arrived, after showing us to our room, and letting us choose from their extensive, great value menu, they sat us down with a million pamphlets and ran us through everything to do in Chiang Mai: from how much, to its location, their personal experiences and whether they thought it was something we’d enjoy, based on the few minutes that they had known us. We pretty much planned our entire week then and there. And from here on, they had taxis organised for us, always on time, and ready to go. Some of my highlights:
- Exploring the city itself: Chiang Mai is a historical old city, built in a huge square and surrounded by a moat, which made it slightly easier to find our bearings, and therefore navigate. The old city itself was pedestrian dominated, which made walking around a pleasure. The markets were incredible. Both the indoor and outdoor, the day and the night. We could have spent many an hour wandering here; it was a fantastic place to practice our bartering skills, especially as everything seemed so cheap after having come straight from the islands.
- Monk chat: A well known (but not hugely crowded) tourist attraction was the ‘Monk Chat‘. On the upper West side of the square is a temple, where you can visit the monks for Q&A – essentially an hour of asking the monks whatever you want. We wanted to increase our understanding of their chosen lifestyle, they were working on improving their English – so essentially it was a win-win for everyone. After the Q&A session, we had a meditation lesson, where a monk taught us about the three types of meditation: sitting, standing and walking. A highly calming, interesting and worthwhile experience.
- Tiger Kingdom: Located a bit further out of the city, it is a good idea to arrange with the tuk-tuk driver to wait out there for you. Cam and I bought the “Big Tiger Experience” (420฿ ), and Summer splashed out to also buy the “Baby Tiger Experience” (600฿ ) – which in hindsight may have been better, as the tigers were far more playful (Summer even endured a scratch!). A lot of debate exists about whether the tigers are drugged, and I remain undecided – despite signs everywhere that refute this, the tigers were admittedly awfully placid. One of those activities that is hard to resist, but I personally would be less inclined to do it again.
- A massage at the Women’s Prison: as a way of reintegrating female prisoners into society, they offer massages down at the prison. There was a two hour wait, so I collected my number and went shopping for a few hours. For 180฿ (compared to the 300฿ on Koh Tao) I received the best massage I would have on the entire trip. For those wondering, I also resisted the urge to ask her about the crime that had landed her there.
- The temple on the hill: We caught a taxi up to a temple (Wat Prathat Doi Suthep) that overlooks the city of Chiang Mai. It was breathtaking. The temple was so beautiful, so detailed and so colourful, we spent a long time just gazing. The view had the potential to be incredible, although it was slightly smoggy. Be warned – they will try to charge you a 30฿ foreigner fee – so we just walked around the side to the other entrance and didn’t have to pay.
- Sammy’s Cooking School: one of the best activities I have ever done and certainly the best cooking school. We got picked up from our hostel and taken to a market where we met Sammy. He showed us around the market, showed us how coconut milk was made, and talked us through the different types of rice. We then headed out to the school itself; which was located somewhere in the countryside and had very lush, green surroundings. From a set menu we chose one option from each category to cook. I chose green curry, coconut soup with chicken, minced chicken stirfry with holy basil, papaya salad, pumpkin custard and also deep fried banana. Summer chose different options to me – including yellow curry, chicken and cashew nut stirfry, and spring rolls. As you can imagine, this was a huge amount of food – so the mid-day siesta on the hammocks was well needed.
- Trekking: I was hugely excited for this, however compromise had to be made when the others made it known that they weren’t so keen – a two day trek was agreed on. A bout of food poisoning left some of us doubting our ability for the trek, reinforced by a horribly smelly and revolting market we were forced to stop at on the way to the trek, and the atrocious quality of the road. We stopped at a waterfall, and some hot springs; I was still too queasy to swim. From here the walking began – although hard at times, it was entirely bearable. We made a few stops at various villages, getting tours from the locals and snapping some highly Insta-worthy pics. Our final destination was a bungalow-type hut thing, where we all slept together, with a mosquito net between two. We met the resident elephant, Maitre’dee, whom we then accompanied back into the jungle. The locals there cooked us dinner – huge quantities of curry and rice, with banana spring rolls for desert. After dinner the ‘happy water’ (a horrendous home-brew) and the guitar came out, as did two lanterns, which we all wrote on before we released them up into the sky. The next morning we rose early for a bit of elephant spotting. Unfortunately we only found one, but were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to take turns riding it bareback back to camp. We then got to bathe the elephant in the river. After breakfast we climbed aboard some bamboo rafts and sailed down the river for a few hours. Although it was really fun, the water was cold, and so after Kelsey fell in and I took a fall (during some rapids) I think everyone was pretty relieved to finally step onto solid ground.
From Chiang Mai we caught a 6 hour bus to Chiang Rai; one of the many kind souls at Libra Guesthouse met us at the bus stop with our bags after the trek, so we could begin our journey onwards the same night. I have fond memories of this place, made especially so by the wonderful people at Libra.