Last time out we arrived into our fourth country, Thailand, for a relaxing week on the island of Phuket. After recuperating, we were both ready to make our way north to Chiang Mai for four nights.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city and lies next to the country’s tallest mountains. Before Thailand formed, Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom for approximately 500 years. When planning our journey home, we decided to visit here for three reasons; the night markets, the temples and the elephants.
I don’t normally get nervous when it comes to flying but, after that plane disappeared from Kuala Lumpar, I haven’t fancied flying around South East Asia. I felt fine on the international flights from Australia to Bali to Singapore to Phuket. However, this time we were on an internal Thai flight. That’s not to say there’s anything bad about internal Thai flights; for some reason I was worried.
Anyway, after all that build up, the flight was perfectly fine apart from the lack of leg room. 5ft10 and I might as well have had my knees in the cockpit!
It didn’t take long at all to get through the airport and we were immediately shown into a fixed rate taxi for a lift into the city itself.
Where We Stayed
Chiang Mai is huge but, for tourists at least, the focus is on the Old City. The Old City is still bordered by (mostly) intact walls and a moat and is full of beautiful Buddhist temples.
As we’ve done a lot during our travels, we scoured Airbnb (if you haven’t used it before, this link will give you £25 credit!) and found a modern, one bedroom apartment overlooking the Shangri-La Hotel. Not only was the Airbnb perfectly located in a quiet area only a few minutes walk from the Night Markets, the price was £30 a night. What a bargain!
Despite inputting our Airbnb’s location on the taxi driver’s phone, he still took us for a bit of a ride and tried dropping us off at the Night Market despite it being 1pm. He apologised once we explained (again) that we wanted to go to our apartment and that it wasn’t even night time.
The apartment building was practically a five star hotel with doormen in suits and hats and an incredible rooftop pool. Although, having recently stayed at the Marina Bay Sands, no rooftop pool will ever come close.
I’m sure when you normally go away somewhere nice the last thing you want to think about is washing clothes. However, we’d been planning to wash our clothes here for the first sinc Singapore and there was nothing I was more excited for than putting a load in that machine. Maybe.
After pushing ourselves too hard on our first day in Singapore, the plan was to take it easy with a little walk to get our bearings. Despite having a map, we thought we’d walked the entire length of the old city and were a little disappointed with how small it was. It was also oddly quiet.
The main street back to our Airbnb was full of locals setting up stalls during the day and, by nightfall, the whole area was buzzing. Pathways lined with market stalls and hundreds of tourists and, every so often, the stalls will open up into a huge covered night markets with food, drink, music and massages! Chiang Mai is definitely all about the markets!
We still ended up getting back really late but our first impressions were good.
This day was dedicated to the temples of Chiang Mai. I think there’s over 300 in total although we only really had time for the main ones in and around the Old City.
Having not been in a Buddhist temple before, I was cautious not to offend anyone by pointing my feet directly at an image of the Buddha. Well there were Buddha’s everywhere. My feet didn’t know which way to point. The only respectful way to take in the temples is to sit down with your feet behind you! Talk about a Brit abroad…
We also quickly learnt that we had been completely wrong on day one with regards to the Old City. We had only just managed to walk to the Eastern Wall rather than all the way to the West as we thought.
As soon as you enter the Old City you’ll notice that there are temples absolutely everywhere. I was pleasantly surprised too by the wide pathways and how laidback it felt. It felt very religious especially when you see that monks are part of everyday life here. Casually catching a group taxi or strolling along the road to evening prayer.
My favourite temples were not only the big hitters of Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang but also the much quieter Wat Chiang Man up in the north east corner. The temples themselves were so intricate thanks to the unique Lanna design and had enormous golden shrines which are good enough by themselves.
For lunch, we ate at a very small local restaurant where we wanted to try Khao Soi. This is Chiang Mai’s famous curry noodle soup which has both boiled and deep fried noodles. Really good but so spicy!
We wandered around more temples after lunch, tried cold green tea with ‘bubbles’ (turns out it was grass jelly?!) and went in search of the infamous ‘Cowboy Hat’ girl. She was impossible to miss at her food stall just outside of the northern gate. A young woman wearing a cowboy hat cuts up mountains of pork knuckle as your order is taken by the side of a busy main road.
I can’t remember how much we paid (about £1) for Thai pork knuckle, rice and a boiled egg but it was some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. Emma didn’t fancy any of it after seeing it being prepared but I couldn’t help but dig in. The trick is to take advantage of the free condiments set out on each table. Yes it’s probably been there for ages but nothing compares to combination of the pickled mustard greens and chilli vinegar with that pork knuckle!
After a long day of walking, we went back to the night market near our Airbnb. We grabbed two fresh fruit juices and, god knows why, decided to put our feet in those fish feeding tanks. For fifteen minutes. Why on earth these became popular and flooded the high streets ten years ago I honestly don’t know why. The fish were having a proper good go on my feet and even tried sticking their heads out the water to get my fresh leg skin. I have to admit though my feet were pretty soft afterwards.
We had a slow start to day three thanks to doing so much the day before. Our plan today was to grab a taxi up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep; a sacred temple high up the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai.
The weather was boiling and, by the time we’d walked to the shared taxi stop, my grey t-shirt was soaked through. There were only four of us in the red taxi (a pick-up truck with seats in the back) which wouldn’t leave until there were eight passengers. We waited in the heat for about twenty minutes before all agreeing to pay more just so we could leave!
To get to the temple itself, we still had to walk up an impressive serpent-flanked staircase. Climbing 306 steps in the searing heat is not for the faint hearted. Luckily, if you’re prepared to wait, there’s a little cable car that’ll take you up.
We managed to get a good look round the temple before we were surrounded by mist and the heavens opened. Whilst most people dived for cover, I kept my camera out (yes it’s weather resistant) for epic shots.
To end the day, we went to the Sunday Walking Market back in the Old City. This is the one event that you don’t want to miss when visiting. Loads of roads are closed to traffic and stalls pop up all over the place selling handicrafts, clothes and food.
There was still one more Chiang Mai speciality that I wanted to try; Sai Ua. Basically, this is a homemade pork sausage with red curry paste and other herbs. Having eaten one, I immediately went back for another it was that good. What wasn’t so good is that I could taste it for about 12 hours afterwards! We must have been hungry as we also ate Chinese pork steamed buns, pork dumplings and cheese balls.
Full and ready to explode, we needed to make sure we got a good night sleep. Our final day would be spent with elephants at an ethical sanctuary.
This isn’t the blog post to go all into the nitty gritty of animal cruelty and ethical treatment of elephants but, as decent people, we wanted to make sure that the elephants were well looked after. After reading plenty of reviews and watching YouTube videos, we settled on a full day visit to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.
There was no riding involved and we would simply get to feed them, give them a mud bath and then wash them. There were only six elephants including a little baby and, all in all, the day was really good. The thing I’ve found about doing these ‘surreal’ experiences is that, at the time, they feel completely normal. Like it’s completely normal to have an elephant stealing bananas from your hand or massaging mud into an elephant twice the size of you. It’s only when you look back and process the experiences that they seem as incredible as they were!
In my honest opinion, I think there were probably too many people (30) for the day and I had some concerns that the same six elephants were being seen by another group from a different company altogether. I can’t back that up with any evidence apart from the fact that we saw the other group very close to where we had just been feeding the elephants. From what I saw though, the elephants were treated very well and were free to roam the area by themselves. When they came down for a wash, two of the elephants enjoyed it so much that they were left to play in the water by themselves for about 30 minutes.
It was definitely an amazing experience and one that I would recommend to anyone. Elephants really are amazing creatures and it was so good to spend a full day with them. The highlight being able to touch one that was pregnant with a huge baby elephant wriggling around inside.
The only proper way to end our time in Chiang Mai was to have a thirty minute foot and leg massage. It would have been rude not to at £2 each. I wish I’d had more of these now; maybe one a day.
Our time in Chiang Mai came to an end pretty quickly but I think four nights was just about right. We managed to see and do everything we wanted to and we also had plenty of chill time too. I’m sure we’ll be missing that chill time once we get to our final stop; the crazy Bangkok.
Just one more internal flight to get through…
Click here to move on to my post on Bangkok.
If you’ve been to Chiang Mai I’d love to hear your thoughts too or, if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.
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