Our next stop in Thailand was the northern city of Chiang Mai. The cultural and historic city was loaded with temples, coffee shops and bike/motorbike rental places. Its favorable proximity to the mountains also made it ideal for outdoor adventures.
We devoted our first full day to visiting some of the city’s main temples – and what better way to do that than by bike! From old teak wood ones to the more modern and richly decorated, Chiang Mai’s temple dream team was determined to impress us. But most worthy of the blue ribbon prize was Wat Chedi Luang – the colossal red-brick temple dates to 1441 and housed the Emerald Buddha temporarily (Thailand’s most significant Buddha statue). Unfortunately it was later damaged by an earthquake but its vestiges still speak of the formidable structure. The elephants on the second tier served as guardians, some of which also fell victim to the earthquake and hands of time.
After the temples we grabbed lunch at Huen Peng and tried the traditional northern Thai Khao Soi, a dish Brigitte immediately fell in love with. We spent the rest of the afternoon/evening wandering around Chiang Mai, even making a pit stop at one of the city’s parks where we encountered some hungry yet friendly pigeons.
Our second day was drastically different; we had signed up for a day tour in the mountains so it was time for adventure! We kicked off the day with an orchid farm followed by visit to a countryside village where we met the “long neck karen” women. As part of their tradition they place a metal ring (or coil), around their necks (from childhood onward), until they attain 20 – 25 rings. One ring is added for each birthday and some of the women we saw carried 15+ rings. Remarkably they never remove the rings (except when adding a new one) which can weigh up to 10 pounds. Overall we were marveled and at the same time bewildered by the “long neck karens”, what a unique mode of life.
Next it was time for an elephant ride (a first for me), so we made our way deeper into mountains. We embarked on the gentle giant and hit the arduous trail – making our way up and down a hill and then down onto the river bank. The giant gently trudged through the mud and back up on the hill, stopping every so often while trunking weeds or plants into his mouth. The 30 or so mini bananas we had for him was barely a treat as elephants consume about 350+ pounds of food a day (mainly whole bananas, sugar cane and other plants). Feeding the bananas to his eagerly grasping trunk was extraordinary and made me wonder who has the better understanding of one another (us humans of them or the elephants of us). As our elephant ride concluded we met up with our guide again and set off towards the waterfall. This was the wet, muddy and wild part of our hike which took us much deeper into the forest. Super dense and super lush due to the rainy season, the vegetation was reminiscent of a scene from Apocalypse Now. It took us about 45 minutes to reach the waterfall, making our way (at times acrobatically), over the rugged terrain and rudimentary bamboo stick water crossings. The payoff was the cool-off at the waterfall and taking in the scenery before the afternoon’s next activity – white water rafting. Our raft guide turned out to be as wild as the rapids – never serious, always splashing everyone with water and at one point pushing/pulling everyone into the river. I actually went in on my own (although Brigitte calling me a pansy might’ve had something to do with it), but was apprehensive about the murky water and one of Asia’s largest reptiles – the crocodile. Luckily there weren’t any or so we were told!
Our third day in Chiang Mai was much tamer although it did include a few big wild cats – tigers. We hired a car and driver for the day and started out with a visit to Doi Suthep, a nearby mountain village that’s home to the beautiful Wat Phra That temple. This is one of the most sacred temples in Northern Thailand and its secluded location added even more charm. From there it was just a short drive to Phuping Palace, one of the royal family’s winter residences. The residence was off limits so we ventured through the beautifully lush grounds consisting of rose and fern gardens and many other tropical plant and flower species. The enormity of some of the bamboo trees was awesome.
A little later that afternoon after seeing the Wat Umong temple, it was time for Tiger Kingdom. The place contains over 30 Indian Asian Tigers of all sizes, from newborns to adult cats. We signed up for the small and big cat combo which saw us off to the 3-month old darlings that were irresistibly cute. After caressing and posing with them (which was amazing), it was on to the biggest tigers of the compound. Tigers can appear very chill given their 20-hour a day sleeping pattern. The ones we visited had just been fed and were laying around perhaps trying to nap while enjoying the petting from visitors. The treatment from us was no different – we petted them, played with their tails and posed for that “holy crap, is this a tiger I’m posing with?” photo opp. It’s amazing how one of the most ferocious wild cats can become so tame and enjoy human bonding. Also amazing (in a negative way), is that only about 150 such tigers exist in Southeast Asia due to poaching. The overall experience of petting them, listening to their heart beat and just being next to them was surreal – I don’t have any pets but I can appreciate people’s attachment to animals.
Our next and final stop for the day was the Botanical Garden, an impressive and massive assortment of plants and flowers from all over the world. This was a nice end to an incredible few days in Chiang Mai!