Chiang Mai, Pai, and Slow Boat to Laos
We left Sukhothai with the excitement of a bigger city in our sights. In pictures and books – Chiang Mai is an oasis of mountain jungles, elephants, open markets, temples, and much more. We weren’t sure what the city had in store for us, or how it would open itself up to us, but we were eager to find out.
When we arrived we immediately went out for a walk around the city. We were staying close to a portion of the old city wall; we had a restaurant in mind, so we admired the big ancient gate as we walked through and headed off to eat. As we continued to walk we passed a few temples (yes, quite a few!) After dinner we walked back and were off to bed – we had an early start the next day.
Jungle trekking while in Chiang Mai is a must. It’s definitely not glamorous in any way but it’s a fun way to get to know fellow travelers and the locals. We began our trek at an elephant sanctuary where we were able to bathe the elephants. Next, we drove a short distance to our trail entrance. The trail was so peaceful and we had a great time chatting with our trek-mates while climbing the mountain. We stopped at a waterfall along the way to cool off – it was incredibly hot during our trek. We walked through beautiful valleys with dried rice fields, cows, and there wasn’t a soul in sight.
We finished our trek in a small mountain village – where the children swarmed us to show off their bracelet making skills and, of course, to sell what crafts they could. These were the friendliest people we have ever met. They cooked us dinner, set up our “beds”, and opened their small village to us.
We all slept in one big room together and in the morning the locals made breakfast for us before we walked on. We finished the trek and were back at our hotel in time for dinner. We walked to a local market, with some friends we met on the trek, to see what we could find to eat. This market food was the most delicious, set your mouth on fire spicy, food ever. It was the kind of market that the locals visit to get their dinners for the evening. Meaning, you could walk around and select a few items at each stall and have a complete meal. The market was hidden away in a more residential area so we were literally the only tourists in the area – it was fantastic and an authentic local experience.
In the morning we were off on another adventure… this one Meghan had been waiting excitedly for. We were going to the BMP Elephant Care Project to hang out with the elephants. This was the most Magical. Day. Ever. When we arrived we quickly changed into volunteer clothes and stocked our bags with bananas; elephant treat of choice, and walked out to see the beautiful animals.
It was the most adorable thing; as soon as they saw us walking towards them they got excited too and began stampeding (in a good way!) towards us. We introduced ourselves and fed them bananas to get them comfortable. There was a 5-month-old elephant named Peanut – she was the cutest little munchkin and the most funny to watch running (just Google “baby elephant running” to see what we mean, you’re welcome).
We spent the entire day with the elephants; making their natural medicine, walking through the jungle with them, having a bath with them, and just general hanging out. There was an all around energy of love and care at this particular sanctuary. The elephants were all rescued; with the exception of Peanut, who was born there. The handlers are caring and gentle – we caught one have a special moment with Peanut in the woods. We could tell these elephants were well treated and, above all, loved.
There is a major difference in regards to how elephants are fostered in Thailand (and other areas of the world too). The sad reality is that many are forced into tourist areas for riding and they are treated very cruelly. When we were in Ayutthaya there was an elephant riding attraction set up beside a popular ancient ruin site. We walked over to say hi to the elephants and could see how distressed they were. In particular, a young elephant was swaying back and forth with her eyes wide and frantic. The irony was that this young elephant was being tortured/disciplined, by way of a stick with a sharp metal poker on the end, from a man holding his own infant child. It took everything in our power not to ask him how he would feel if someone poked his baby with the apparatus he was holding. This made us incredibly sad for all these elephants and, as a result, we want to urge anyone reading not to support the businesses with elephant riding.
After our delightful day with the elephants we returned to Chiang Mai city and decided to visit a few of the tourist markets they are famous for. These markets are MASSIVE and full of food, souvenirs, and homemade crafts. Another great attribute about Chiang Mai is it’s diverse culture of natural and organic products. There are many stalls to purchase such goods and it was a nice change to see markets full of nice products other than the typical tacky tourist stuff.
We settled in with some food and ice cream at the Ploen Ruedee Night Market – after visiting all the others. This particular market had live entertainment – a father, son, and daughter trio. It also contained a more trendy and funky vibe of food trucks and stalls. We liked, very mucho.
The next day Meghan woke up early to join Basil Healthy Cooking School for a lesson in Thai cuisine. They visited the local market to pick up ingredients and brought them back to the Basil kitchen to begin the 5-course meal! If you are looking for cooking classes in Chiang Mai definitely check out Basil. The team is so professional, patient, and helpful – it was a yummy experience. Meghan cannot wait to put the recipes to use back home.
Our time was up in Chiang Mai and we were on to our next mountain town… Pai!
Please believe us… the road to Pai is not for the faint of heart. It is a super windy and the drivers are super crazy. We had a few people crying on our minibus ride – we’re not sure if it was due to motion sickness or just plain fear, either way it was a tough one. Meghan was popping anti-nausea and even that barely worked. When we finally arrived in Pai and saw the town the drive was all worth it!
We stayed at Pai Country Hut and our accommodation was the cutest little bungalow. This bungalow was better constructed than our last and had its own relaxing hammock. Bonus.
Pai is a mountain town (hence the windy road up) with a lot of chill energy. There are food stalls set up all along the main road in the evenings and reggae bars, with live reggae bands, to relax in. It is the perfect mix of local flavor and eclectic experiences.
We rented two scooters, because Meghan was getting a little stiff being a scooter passenger all the time, and began our journey out to Tham Lod Cave. This was also the first time Meghan had driven a scooter, probably not the best idea. We had to take the same mountain-ous winding road to the cave that we drove into Pai on. It was inevitable for skin to hit pavement … and so it did. Lucky she wasn’t going fast and there were no other vehicles around, no harm done so we kept on going. The remainder of the journey was more favourable.
Tham Lod Cave does not allow tourists to enter without a guide – so we marched on to the cave with our little Thai guide and her gas lantern. She took us to the points of interest inside the cave, and lastly, to our bamboo “boat” for a cruise through the river in the cave. We were the only ones there at the time so it was a really cool experience… even with all the bats and creepy crawlers.
Afterwards, we scooted around some more and visited Pai Canyon and a few waterfalls, which unfortunately, were mostly dried up because it was the hottest month in Thailand. We stopped in at Coffee in Love for some of “The Best Coffee in Pai” and the incredible view.
In the morning it was time to embark on our journey to our next country, Laos. We ended up staying 36 days in Thailand and, because we anticipated this, we visited the Visa/Passport office when we were in Bangkok to extend our 30-day Visa. It is a really simple thing to do; mostly, it is just a money grab. You pay the money, fill out a form, have a photo taken, and voila! You have another 30 days to enjoy Thailand.
Now we were back on a minibus down the windy road to our last stop in Thailand. We stayed at a questionable hotel overnight, close to the Thai/Laos border, and in the morning we were taken by minibus to the land crossing of Houay Xai. This is where we crossed into Laos and shuttled to the “Slow Boat”; which, was our ride along the Mekong River into Luang Prabang.