Similarly to the way I ended up in Siem Reap in large part because I wanted to see Ankor, I ended up in Chiang Mai due to its being the base for the and elephant park, which I very much wanted to visit. But while I only needed one day for my plan to visit the elephants, I gave myself three days in Chiang Mai, as I knew it would offer so much more. I traveled to and from Chiang Mai via train, taking in beautiful views of endless rice paddies while we were closer to Bangkok, and basking in the majesty of the mountains, the foothills of the Himalayas, when we were closer to Chiang Mai.
My first day in Chiang Mai I got up bright and early to join a cooking class at Asia Scenic Cooking School. I had initially planned only signing up for a half-day course, so that I could use the remainder of my day to explore the city, but upon perusing the website, I became so enraptured with the concept and the self-descriptions of the women who run the operation that I decided to go for the whole day. It was well worth it. The day included a trip to the market, a tour of the gardens at the farm, and a full course meal (we each made six dishes of our choosing). There was only one other person who joined the full-day course on the farm that day, a retiree from Paris names Marie who was planning on setting down in Chiang Mai. Though her English was limited and I only know a few basic greetings in French, we shared enough kitchen vocabulary that we could share our joy of cooking. Our teacher, Gassby, was humorous and patient, and simply lovely. I thoroughly enjoyed spending the day with the two of them.
As a bonus, because there were only two of us in the course (there can sometimes be up to fifteen), we were able to head back to town a bit early, giving me plenty of time to rest, grab and early dinner at a café, and head to one of Chiang Mai’s many night markets. The Anusarn Market was very close to where I was staying, in the Grace Hotel (yes, I did ultimately choose my hotel based on its name), and it was a good introduction to the Chiang Mai market scene, as it was much calmer and less overwhelming than some of the other markets I visited later on.
My second day in Chiang Mai I spent most of my day in the company of elephants. Since coming to South East Asia as an English Teaching Assistant in Indonesia, I have wanted to spend some time up close and personal with these incredible creatures. However, many of the parks in the region for elephants are not ethical at all, and in many cases, abuse the elephants. I wanted to avoid being a part of that, and so I did careful research regarding the options I had, and eventually concluded that the best option for me was the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai. The Elephant Nature Park rescues elephants at risk of being put down from the tourism and logging industries, and allows them to live out their lives in the peace of the sanctuary. Almost all of the elephants are female (males are extremely expensive to house, and the park unfortunately cannot afford to do so), and most of them are much older, with the oldest elephant estimated at being over 90 years old. Some of the elephants have given birth, so there are a few babies running around as well. Because so many of the elephants were rescued after spending their whole lives being mistreated, many of them have broken limbs, missing ears, or are blind. But because each elephant is assigned a mahout to ensure the animal’s well-being, the staff of the park believe that they can all live full lives, despite the disabilities they may have. As visitors, we were able to assist with the feeding and bathing of the elephants, and learned the ins-and-outs of elephant care, depending on an elephant’s needs. It was such a privilege to spend a day learning more about the elephant, in the very presence of such amazing animals.
That night was the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, which was by far the most crowded market I visited during my stay. The street was absolutely packed with tourists and locals, but the handicrafts present were well worth the visit.
I also treated myself to a proper Thai massage that evening. Prior to coming to Indonesia, the very thought of a massage made me extremely uncomfortable (I’m not overly fond of being touched by strangers), but I have slowly become accustomed to them, and I do find a Thai-style massage quite helpful after extensive travel. After so much time on buses and trains, I decided my body was in need of some help, and opted for my massage while in Chiang Mai. I went to a place called Lila Massage, which, in addition to offering one of the best massages I have ever had, trains female inmates in the art of massage and offers them employment upon release, something I find really wonderful and admirable.
My final day in Chiang Mai was dedicated to temples. In Chiang Mai, there is a wall around the older part of the city, and I had found a list of temples within the walls that were worth visiting.
I started at Wat Phra Singh, a beautiful temple on the other side of town from where I was staying, and apparently the most popular temple to visit within city limits. I almost failed to pay for my entry at this lovely temple, as I must have missed a sign somewhere for the ticket booth, and no one caught on that I wasn’t supposed to be where I was. I did eventually find a ticket booth, however, and had a good laugh with the woman selling me the tickets, who understood enough English to get my jokes about how “I promise I’m not trying to be a criminal.”
Wat Phan Tao was probably my favorite of the more popular temples to visit. An older, more unassuming temple built of teak wood, it was certainly not as shiny and colorful as some of the other temples I visited, but I loved it all the more for its humble simplicity.
Wat Chedi Luang is right next to Wat Phan Tao, and it is an impressive temple that includes massive ruins of a much older potion of the temple. But what made my time at Chedi Luang so memorable was that the temple offers daily Monk Chats, in which you can sit with a monk and ask questions about Buddhism, the daily life of a monk, and even Thai culture. I joined a larger group, and though I did not ask any questions myself, I learned a lot from listening to the varied questions others had, and the monk’s responses.
Wat Chiang Man is supposedly the oldest temple in town, and it was in a slightly different section of Old Town than the other temples. It was small and simple, and best known for older glass and bronze statues of the Buddha, encased in a shrine.
There was one temple that I visited which was not on any list, but which caught my eye nonetheless. Wat Buppharam was very close to where I was staying, and I passed its entrance several times searching for supper or on my way to the markets. Wat Buppharam attracted my attention because at the front of the temple there was a Donald Duck statue, something I found quite peculiar. I decided to try to take a peek, and on finding that there was a ticket booth for tourists (I try to avoid imposing on temples that are not already set up for tourism, although I am sure I would be welcome), headed on in. Wat Buppharam has some of the most detailed and interesting statues I had seen yet at a temple, and the few plaques I could find spoke of royal connections to the temple. What I did not find, however, was any explanation as to why there was a Donald Duck statue outside the temple. That remains a mystery.
On my final night in Chiang Mai I went to the daily Night Market. The bottom floor of one of the buildings had some truly beautiful artwork, though I couldn’t bring myself to buy any, as I could not devise a way to bring them home without them breaking. But I loved perusing the pieces and admiring the artist’s creativity.
And then, all too soon, it was time to board the train back to Bangkok, bidding Chiang Mai goodbye. In many ways, I wish I had given myself more time there, to better explore the city and the surrounding areas, but I suppose this just means I will need to visit Chiang Mai again someday.