I have a wicked soft spot in my heart for South-east Asia.
The reason for my love of South east Asian travel, is the chance to immerse yourself in a completely different culture, landscape, cuisine, thought and way of life. At lunch for example, you don’t just get to eat a bowl of rice & curry. You get to have a flavor explosion of sweet, sour, tangy umami with bursts of toasted peanuts, while having it served on a banana leaf. Did I mention you’re sitting cross legged and barefoot, in a Buddhist temple courtyard through this? The food and the surroundings are meant to guide you to mindfulness — giving every minute detail, no matter how insignificant, your undivided attention.
It’s not just a bowl of curry: it’s an experience.
Asian culture in itself is distinct, to bear witness to its various reincarnations across different countries in Asia, is pretty awesome.
For instance, there are Hindu temples in India that are strikingly similar yet different from the Buddhist temples in Cambodia, Thailand, Burma. Taking in the architecture, art & cultural influence in the craftsmanship of each structure is pretty inspiring. The same goes for customs, dress & general outlook towards life. The arresting dichotomy of the East versus West, is what you witness anytime you travel to South east Asia.
On a first time jaunt to South East Asia, if you’re deciding between which country to choose from a roster of Vietnam, Philippines, China, India, Myanmar, Cambodia, South Korea, Maldives — consider — Thailand. Affordable, beautiful, tourist-heavy, yet tourist-friendly, Thailand offers a great mix of a tropical, urban & solitudinous getaways.
Here are 9 reasons why a visit to Chiang Mai is life changing (and I don’t mean that lightly):
1. Elephants. You get to hang out with Elephants
First of all, I LOVE elephants. Ah, my bias is showing…. let me rephrase. I LOVE ELEPHANTS BECAUSE THEY ARE THE BESTEST THINGS AND FAVORITEST CREATURES OF ALL TIME.
Okay, now that we got that out of the way…. Seriously, what is incredible about Chiang Mai, is the opportunity to participate in eco-conservation efforts, by spending a day with these gentle giants as a “mahout”/elephant keeper. It’s not uncommon to see elephants walking down the road in Thailand, many are even kept as pets (I am both thrilled and terrified about this prospect). The elephant sanctuaries here take in the spurned elephants from circuses, other rescues to create a home for them. I highly recommend Patara Elephant Farm, I’ve also heard good things about Elephant Nature park. Having the privilege of spending an entire day with these amazing creatures in their backyard is nothing short of life changing.
Patara Elephant Farm
Baan Pong Hang Dong District, Chiang Mai 50230, Thailand
Phone: +66 98 549 3644
Elephant Nature Park
209/2 Sridom Chai Road, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand
Phone: +66 53 272 855
2. Baan Tong Luang Village, aka Long Neck Village
The first time I’d heard of the long-neck tribe, aka the Padaung tribe, was on a national geographic special. I remember nerding out and writing a paper on it for school too. My nerdy dreams came to fruition when I had the chance to visit an entire village of long neck people in Chiang Mai. The women in this tribe wear multiple & heavy brass rings, to have long necks. Beauty is in the beholder’s eye, and subjective from culture to culture: to hear from the women here how a long neck was not only a sign of beauty, but the brass rings were also a symbol of strength, will & wisdom was fascinating. They told me when they first got their rings, what it felt like to wear them, and answered an age old question of mine: How the heck do you sleep with that on?? (and I thought sleeping with curlers on was hard)
Here’s an article that tells you more about the village, here’s a great read on why it can be controversial visiting different hill tribes, how to visit ethically. The whole setup though can feel a bit hokey, and more than a village walk, feel like you’re walking from stall to stall. But most villagers, built the shops as extensions from their homes, from what I saw. Overall, a terrific opportunity to support a community and learn about an age old culture.
Baan Tong Luang Eco-Agricultural Village
Mae Raem, Mae Rim District, Chiang Mai 50180, Thailand
Phone: +66 85 711 9575
3. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, aka Mountain top Temple
Say Wat?! The Mountain Top Temple is resplendent & from its impressive terrace, you get a 360 degree view of Chiang Mai city.
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Road Tambon Su Thep, Chiang Mai Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Phone: +66 53 295 002
4. Biking to nearby temples, like Wat Pra Singh
Most hotels will offer bike rental, biking all about the town and stopping by cafes & temples on the way is an absolute joy. It’s quite the contrast to see a centuries-old temple, next to a bustling newly constructed road. It’s the same feeling of awe you get on seeing the Colosseum next to the bustling streets of Rome; or in seeing ancient temples in India juxtaposed against busy streets; or on seeing Tokyo’s archaic Meiji Shrine in the middle of the bold & inventive Harajuku district. In our experience, the intersection of the old and new is always a great place to be for Mojo.
2 Samlarn Rd, ตำบล พระสิงห์ อำเภอ เมืองเชียงใหม่ Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand
Phone: +66 53 416 027
5. Night Bazaar
Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter
Meandering about the tiny cubes of stalls with trinkets, scarves, lanterns, clothes & street food is a feast for all your senses. As a tourist, make sure to haggle your price or you risk getting ripped off! I found the scarves/clothes/woodwork to be worthwhile buys; the lanterns/trinkets/jewelry I bought didn’t last more than 2 uses. And I’m positive I got ripped off, even though I walked off all smug, thinking I’m a FABULOUS negotiator.
Chang Klang Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand
For additional info, click here
6. Street Food
I don’t have pictures, because I was too busy eating. This was probably what I enjoyed most after the elephants. Dear god, the Rad Na & Pad Thai!! A Chiang Mai speciality is Khao Soi, a fried egg noodle curry specialty. Here’s more tips on food to eat in Chiang Mai, and yes, food here is super vegetarian friendly!
7. Insanely affordable & high quality Spa treatments
I got a long, deluxe pedicure, in a lotus bath, with paraffin treatment. And a full body Thai massage, including head, hands, feet; also with paraffin treatments for another 1 hour. I walked out feeling like putty, wondering what year it was. The cost of this mega luxe indulgence?
That’s right, sistah! You can get quality spa time in Chiang Mai, although beware of outfits that sometimes serve as front houses for prostitution. Ask your hotel to book a treatment for you.
8. Riverside cafe
What a cute find this place was! If possible, try to get seating in the upstairs foyer — you can still hear the live band downstairs. After a long day of temple hopping, this is a nice spot to wind down with a bowl of Khai Soi.
9–11 ถนน เจริญราษฎร์ ตำบล วัดเกต อำเภอ เมืองเชียงใหม่ Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50000, Thailand
Phone: +66 53 243 239
9. Yi Peng Lantern Festival
Photo by Gian D.
It’s a dream of mine to go to the Yi Peng Lantern Festival in November in Chiang Mai. Folks release lanterns into the night sky, to symbolize good fortune & “making merit”, celebrating hope & wishes for the future. It’s akin to the Indian festival of lights, Diwali — except the groundwork for the lights is the sky.
Here’s an excellent resource to plan your Yi Peng festival visit.
A word about Tiger Kingdom & the Snake Farm
I’ve omitted a few experiences on purpose.
The experience I strongly recommend against is Tiger Kingdom.
A lot of people are taken by the opportunity to pose with a tiger. It might earn you likes and comments on social media, but these tigers appeared lethargic and sedated & chained. Our cab driver drove us here for “an amazing lunch cafe at a Tiger theme park”. It was heartbreaking to see the tigers pacing around restlessly, in cages & across moats or drugged to be served up on a tourist’s polaroid pic. In our view, it’s not worth the emoji high from your social feed. Here’s some more reading on the topic. Chiang Mai taught me that eco-tourism comes with the need to research your cause meticulously.
Whichever of these experiences you encounter, it’s sure to leave a searing impression in your mind. Chiang Mai is a truly timeless gem of a destination, I can’t wait to go back there for the Yi Peng festival & hang out with the baby elephants again!