There are two reasons to visit Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand. The first reason is the square shaped old town that used to be surrounded by a city wall and a moat, parts of which are still visible. Inside the old town, there are many Buddhist temples to visit and many nice cafés, restaurants, and massage salons. And every Sunday night there is a huge market that fills out almost half of the old town. The second reasons why someone would go to Chiang Mai is the huge offer of activities nearby. Being situated in the mountainous north of Thailand, there are rivers for kayaking and rafting, trekking opportunities, elephant sanctuaries, cooking classes, and other touristic activities such as Zip-Lining, mountain bike tours, etc.
After having seen dozens of temples in the past few days in Bangkok and Ayutthaya, I felt like getting active in Chaing Mai. I did not visit a single temple in Chiang Mai, instead I went kayaking on rivers for two days, took a cooking course with Ilinca, and visited an elephant sanctuary. For those who would like to know more about the city and the culture of Chiang Mai, please read Ilinca’s blog (http://heretoelsewhere.com/chiang-mai-cooking-thai-food-chatting-buddhist-monks-encountering-kinds-animals/).
Kayaking in White Water
Back in high school, some 17 years ago, I used to take kayaking classes for two summers and I always enjoyed this activity because it is a good workout, and the same time you get to see the river banks from a new perspective and it was also very refreshing activity. Since then, I neglected this sport and only went kayaking a few times on lakes or on the sea in Australia or New Zealand, but this is by no means the same. So when I saw in Chiang Mai that there are kayak tours on rivers available, I did not need much time to decide that I want to get back into it.
The first day I booked a guided tour on Chiang Dao River. It was an easy tour on a mostly flat river with only one small rapid, but that was good to get the river feeling again on the kayak. In addition, the scenery was very beautiful as the river went through the jungle.
On the second day kayaking I wanted to work on my technique. One of the dangers when kayaking on a river is that the rather small kayaks flip over in rough water, which leaves me head down in the water while still being inside the kayak. Obviously, this is an unpleasant situation and there are two possibilities to reach some oxygen again. Either I perform a so-called wet exit, meaning I pull up the neoprene cover of the kayak and dive out of the kayak and swim to the shore. This is easy in calm waters, but in rough waters, the second option is much safer: Roll back to the surface while staying inside the kayak, i.e. by flipping the kayak again but while being head down in the water. This so called Eskimo roll I have never done before, so day two of kayaking was basically a full day of training with a private instructor to roll properly in the water. While a lot of water was swallowed in the beginning, during the day I succeeded more and more often to roll back to the surface. And when going down an actual white water river (Mae Tang River) in the afternoon together with my instructor, my kayak flipped accidentally, and I could use the roll for the first time outside the training environment, and it worked out just fine this time. Another time I did not manage though so I had to perform the wet exit.
I guess I need a few more days of training for rolling confidently in all situations, but that day was fun and after being in the kayak for almost 5 hours, I was dead tired in the evening. If you want to know how kayaking on Mae Tang River looks like, this video gives you a small idea: https://youtu.be/ddrLm2sw4Qc
Feeding and Bathing Elephants
The elephant is not only the national animal of Thailand, but it is also a big tourist attraction all over the country. While elephant riding is unfortunately still very popular in Thailand, in recent times there are more and more elephant activities from which the elephants do not suffer that much, such as trekking with elephants, taking them for a bath, or simply feeding them.
During our stay, we also visited one of those elephant sanctuaries. We basically were preparing food for them and went with them to the river where they enjoyed a good bath. It was really nice being close to these gentle giants for an hour. Most impressive about them was their huge appetite. They were basically eating all the time. When we were not feeding them ourselves, they were feasting on leaves that they either received from their owners, or they just took from the next tree when walking through the forest.
Even though elephants now have a much better life than when they had to carry tourists on their back, I think it is still questionable to make them such a big tourist attraction. While some sanctuaries actually take care of rescue elephants and offer them a good environment after their hard work on farms, others, like the one we visited, breed elephants so they can make money with them, they don’t have any other purpose.
Cooking Thai Food at Cooking Class
Both Ilinca and I really enjoy Thai food, even though sometimes we get caught by its spiciness. While we also cook Thai food ourselves back home (mainly red curry), we wanted to extend our knowledge about Thai food. The best way to do that is to sign up for a cooking class.
The class started at the farmer’s market in Chiang Mai where our teacher showed us all the different vegetables, sauces, and ingredients required for the various dishes we were about to cook. Most interesting was the rice: There were at least ten different kinds of rice to choose from. While some of them is sticky and used often for desserts here in Thailand, others are the rice you serve with curry.
After the market we drove up to a farm a bit outside of Chiang Mai and started preparing our meals. We learned how to prepare spring rolls, Coconut soup with chicken (Tom Kha Gai), stir-fry vegetables and meat, a red curry with shrimps, papaya salad, and sticky rice with mango. It was interesting to see where all the spice in Thai food comes from. Not only are there chilies in the curry past, but when cooking the meals, more chilies are added. As we decided on our own how much chili we put in the food and could compare with how much chili the teacher put in her meals, we got a bit of a reference on how spicy the real Thai food is (as compared to tourist level spiciness).
Summary about Chiang Mai
Staying in Chiang Mai was really nice, especially after busy Bangkok. The city center has a lot to offer for tourists, and around Chiang Mai, there are plenty of activities to perform. But reaching these activities always required a transport as most of them were a 1-1.5 hour drive out of the city. And for returning to the city center, even more time was required because of the notorious traffic chaos around the city center. And usually these transports were in very uncomfortable mini buses. So in addition to the activities themselves, the car rides contributed a lot to the tiredness every evening. Luckily there are plenty of massage salons to relax a bit after these activities.