Chiang Mai, Thailand


This is part 3 of our 5-part December travelogue:

  1. Phuket, Thailand
  2. Bangkok, Thailand
  3. Chiang Mai, Thailand
  4. Siem Reap, Cambodia
  5. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

We had only planned to stay in Chiang Mai for the weekend, but we ended up liking the place so much that we changed our flights and stayed an additional week.

Chiang Mai is just an hour away from Bangkok by plane, but due to its higher elevation and latitude can be 10 degrees (F) cooler. It’s where a lot of Thailand’s produce is grown; one major reason we went was that Casey wanted to eat some of the fresh strawberries the place is known for.

The city is nestled in Thailand’s highlands, which are actually the foothills of the Himalayas. We stayed in the “Old City” which is a section of Chiang Mai surrounded by a moat in an almost perfect square 1.5km on a side. At this point, it’s entirely touristy with all of the buildings within the moat being restaurants, cafes, or hotels, but they weren’t super built up, and it was peaceful to stroll around. There were also a number of temples to visit. Most of the people that we saw were foreigners or employees of those businesses; most native Chiang Mai residents lived in the main part of the city outside the “Old City”. Amusingly, the “Old City” is the original Chiang Mai, but “Chiang Mai” means “New City” in Thai.

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Flying into Chiang Mai you see the foothills of the Himalayas

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Looking down into the “Old City” from our hotel room. The hotel, The Britannia, was a lovely little place run by a Thai woman and her New Zealand husband.


Thailand is known for their elephants. Unfortunately, they are frequently mistreated, commonly used to drum up tourism. Even riding an elephant is impossible unless you break it through violence first.

I was excited to visit Elephant Nature Park, a “rescue and rehabilitation” center where old and injured elephants are bought from industry and given acres of land to just kind of walk around in. It was one of the first places designed for tourism in a way that lets people see and interact with the elephants without harming them. The price of tickets goes to saving more elephants. You can also volunteer there for a week or two at a time, helping to prepare the elephants’ food and bathing them in the river and stuff.

We paid for the admission tickets with money my Grandma generously gave us as a Christmas gift. Thanks, Grandma! These pictures are for you. :)

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Here you see the main lodge overlooking where the elephants live. We had lunch there and watched them. Guides will take you out among the elephants.

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I’m feeding an elephant this melon. She eats the whole thing in one go. Her massive jaws crunch it in a couple bites.

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Casey fed her one, too. Right now she went through about a dozen melons. These elephants can consume 300 lbs of food each day!

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The elephants in the preserve have free range over a lot of nice land, including this river that runs through it.

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Casey touching another elephant. They have very thick, slightly hairy skin. It’s important to approach from the side like this; if you come from behind you can spook them and they can attack.

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A selfie with me and Casey and a friend we made!

Muai Thai

Muai Thai is an extremely popular sport in Thailand, up there with soccer. It’s a form of boxing with certain rules I never fully understood, but people seem to be allowed to attack with feet, hands, elbows, and knees. A common technique is to grab the other person like in a hug, and try to knee them in the torso from up close. A ref is watching and intervenes at some point that I was not able to determine. The boxers always are dressed in either red or blue, and there’s a traditional and distinctive drumming and clarinet-esque woodwind played during the fight.

Casey and I went to see a live event which had 5 matches. The fighters looked like they were in their late teens or early twenties, and did it partly as a tourist gimmick, but also part of Thailand’s Muay Thai league. There are professional leagues and tournaments all over Thailand at the city, region, and national level. The national fights are broadcast on TV all the time. The fights weren’t as brutal as I was afraid of, but I don’t know if that’s just the sport or the level of competition here. There were “knockouts”, meaning the person was knocked down and didn’t get up in 3 seconds, but the loser still seemed to leave the ring afterward without looking too bad. Some of the matches went to the end (5 rounds, while it’s 9–12 in America) and were scored on points.

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Casey and I before the fights at our ring-side seats, not really sure what to expect.

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The flexibility of the kicker and quickness of the dodger were extremely impressive! It felt very like fencing where they would stare each other down and then someone would lunge and the other parry or dodge.

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Between rounds the routine was always the same: set out a big tray, set a stool in the tray, sit the fighter on the stool, dump water over them, and rub down their arms and legs.

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Part of the pre-fight ritual. I don’t fully understand this, but before each match the fighters walk around and bow and do various things.

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The so-called “lady fight” between two female boxers. The red one won on points although I thought the blue one was dominating the whole time. Never did figure out the scoring system.

Wat Pha Lat

We heard a lot about a beautiful temple called “Wat Pha Lat” with a neat “Monk’s Trail” up to it. The trail is well-marked by orange cloth strips (like those monks wear) tied around tree trunks along the way.

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Casey and I take a “Tuk-Tuk” (little three-wheeled, open-air passenger vehicle) to the base of the mountain where the trail begins.

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The tuk-tuk dropped us off here where the trail begins.

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Here we are on the trail.

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At this point we hear a little burbling waterfall that indicates we’re near the end of the trail.

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We made it!

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The path ends at the entrance to the mountain temple here. You can see 3 or 4 different buildings tucked into the hillside among the trees. It’s quite a large temple.

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Whew, what a day! Fortunately, although we hiked up the mountain trail to get to the temple, we waved down this truck to take us back down on the road going down the mountain on the other side.

The “Old City”

We also spent a fair amount of time just walking around the Old City of Chiang Mai where we were staying.

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One of the many beautiful temples in the Old City, lit up at night.

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Delicious snacks at the night market. You pick out what you want and they’ll grill it. It occurred to us later that seafood is maybe not such a good choice in a mountain town far from the coast like this…

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But we had some scallops anyway! They were delicious.

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The night market was extremely packed.

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A meal we were particularly happy with. Casey is eating Tom Kha Gai, the coconut soup, again but this time it’s served in a coconut! My curry was delicious. I have a Thai iced tea, which was good, but not as prevalent as I’d have expected in Thailand.

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We had a lot of snacks… spicy tamarind candies, seaweed, popcorn, banana chips. The white drink is a blended coconut milk shake of basically just coconut milk, coconut meat, and ice. I had several of them they were so good.

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We also visited this temple, “Wat Umong”, on the outskirts of town.

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It’s known for its underground tunnels. The temple is about a 700 years old.

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On the walk back from Wat Umong we passed this lake and Casey pointed out that it looked like we were in North Carolina.

That’s all for Thailand. Bangkok was quite interesting but very hot and busy. Chiang Mai was much more laid back and comfortable. Casey and I talked about how it would be a nice place to retire to, maybe.

All told we spent two weeks in the country. It’s very easy to travel to, with no special visa requirements for Americans, and at least in the major cities you can get by with English. I felt bad not knowing any Thai other than “hello” and “thanks”. The people were all very friendly, and the food delicious but extremely spicy.

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Friendly reminder at the airport to come again and buy more of the cheap counterfeit products that are available, in case you missed them this trip.

Fri, Mar 4, 2016 | For updates follow me on twitter