The week we spent in Chiang Mai was remarkable, and right at the top of our list of the places we’ve visited. Thailand welcomed us with open arms from the moment we stepped off the plane and although we spent a week in Bangkok prior to Chiang Mai, we will be heading back to the big city for round two in the coming week and are so pumped to celebrate our one year anniversary there!
Northern Thailand is absolutely beautiful and the locals are just as friendly and hospitable as in Bangkok, there’s just less of them! Chiang Mai is green, mountainous, the second largest city in Thailand and home to hundreds of temples, many of which are located in the historic Old City where many tourists stay. We wanted to find an apartment a little off the beaten path and ended up in this adorable Airbnb condo northwest of the Old City, which was about a fifteen minute songthaew (literal translation = red truck) ride to downtown. The area is centered around Nimman Road and contains rows of sois (streets) with high quality coffee shops, cheap food stalls, loads of bars and restaurants and live music. We were very happy with our decision to stay in the neighborhood and even found a sushi spot nearby that we loved and enjoyed several times when we felt like deviating from the local fare. The songthaews were a mystery to us upon arrival, but after reading a few blogs we felt somewhat prepared to hail one down, give our destination and negotiate if needed. Taxis are also an option although they’re more money and since the red trucks are literally everywhere it was super easy to snag one and be on our way for 20 Thai Baht each (or about $1.15).
Saturday nights in Chiang Mai are spent at the huge Saturday Night Market, which we promptly arrived to at 5:00PM and enjoyed an amazing fruit smoothie from Mrs. Pa’s stall right outside. We also tried sour pork on a stick (so good), beef and pork soup with giggly parts included (Jenn wasn’t feeling it), and the traditional northern Thai egg noodle soup dish called Khao Soi all from different food stands before heading in. Fueled up, we were ready to take on the busy streets and vendors selling anything and everything. The market is entirely outdoors and has a mixture of stalls selling handmade crafts, clothing, jewelry and other accessories as well as food. We tried some tender, spicy grilled squid and the most delicious mango and sticky rice along the way and both were definite highlights! The market gets unbearably packed after a while so by the time we hailed our songthaew a couple hours later we were ready to split.
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We spent one afternoon checking out Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Pra Singh, a couple of the gorgeous temples in the Old City which were much smaller than the ones we visited in Bangkok but just as beautiful. Jenn especially enjoyed some of the really small and more intimate temples and one that stood out had a Buddha that seemed to be made of jade – gorgeous. We walked amongst young monks which was really cool and spent some time wandering the streets before heading to Boy Blues Bar, the number one spot on TripAdvisor for live music. When we arrived, we weren’t sure it was the right place… but it was. There was one guy on stage, ponytail and all playing a guitar and singing James Taylor covers. He was pretty good but with only one other spectator in the whole place, we were a little puzzled. We decided to stay and give it a shot and thankfully more people trickled in while we enjoyed our cheap gin and sodas at $3.25 a pop.
One highlight of the week was the day we spent on an organic farm cooking authentic Thai dishes and meeting people from the Canary Islands, Norway, UK and the US. We booked the Asia Scenic tour after a ton of research and it was fabulous. Our instructor who went by “A” was quite the entertainer and had a dirty mind (spicy = sexy) which kept everyone laughing for most of the day. We started with a forty-five minute drive outside the city to a local wet market close to the farm and learned more about the typical ingredients that go into Thai cooking to include the staples – noodles (both rice and egg depending on the dish), rice, kaffir lime leaves/rind, galangal, garlic, chilies, lemongrass, coconut milk, curry paste, lime juice, fish sauce, oyster sauce, palm sugar, tamarind and a ton of different herbs. Thai food is all about the balance of sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter and each of the staples has one of the five characteristics. After the market we drove to the farm and got a tour through the impressive gardens – every ingredient we needed for our dishes came from the farm and the herbs were unbelievably fragrant and so fresh! We all got to pick 5 recipes to include a stir fry, soup, curry, salad, dessert and a shared spring roll appetizer that we each made individually. Our wok stations were well equipped and since we ate everything we made, there was a break where everyone could enjoy a short siesta in one of their hammocks which we took full advantage of. The farm was so peaceful that it didn’t take long to nod off. Our favorite part of the experience was pounding four different curries into a paste using a mortar and pestle from the raw components. It took a while and was worth the sweat – no joke! Jenn’s favorite dish of the day was the Tom Yum soup she made with a heat factor of 8/10 and Jesse’s was the Green Curry with chicken but all in all everything was so delicious. We left the farm stuffed to the brim and with some new friends. We give this excursion two thumb up!
The next evening we attended a 90 minute yoga class at NAMO with John, one of our friends from the cooking class and his girlfriend Irene – both traveling yoga instructors. Irene is currently pursuing her Thai Massage certification in Chiang Mai which brought them to Thailand for about a month. The class wasn’t quite what we were expecting and a little slower that we are used to, but it was still cool to take a yoga class in Chiang Mai with another couple. Afterward we had dinner at a vegetarian restaurant which was a recommendation from Christoffer, our Norwegian digital nomad friend from the cooking class and enjoyed our meals and the company. It was great learn about their journey and talk to them about ours. We hope to meet up again in the future!
Massages in Thailand are dirt cheap and excellent! We’ve gotten a few so far but the best one was in Chiang Mai at Lila Thai Massage in the Old City. For 200TBH ($5.73) each, we got a 60 minute foot and leg reflexology massage – money well spent! It wasn’t until after leaving that we realized the parlor employs recently released female inmates to help them reintegrate into society while providing steady income. Since discrimination is prevalent in Thailand, it’s often difficult for these women to find work after serving their time and this program helps. Lila is a definite recommendation for anyone while in Chiang Mai and we were happy to have had the experience.
We love Thai food and have grown to love it more after having it in Thailand but sometimes you just need a break! For us, sushi has been our go-to “break” in most places and thankfully Musashi, which was right in our neighborhood, fulfilled our craving three times! The owner June is there creating culinary masterpieces every night (or at least every night we went) and its fabulous! We had the chance to meet him and learned that he’s originally from Chiang Mai but got a job in Chicago years ago and spent 10 years in the States before going back to Thailand and opening up this gem. The creativity in the rolls and freshness of fish was excellent – we will miss this place! Thanks, June!
And the elephants…definitely one of our favorite days on this trip! On our last day in Chiang Mai we were fortunate to have an experience that is hard to describe because of how hands on and personal it is, but this video will give you a sense of it. We didn’t know quite what to expect other than from the description of feeding, walking and swimming (yeah, the whole swimming thing we weren’t too sure about going into it). We were picked up by Pusa, our knowledgable and passionate guide and driven an hour outside of the city to Baanchang Elephant Park to spend a half day with the rescued elephants and another couple from Perth Australia, Peter and Charmaine who were great. When we arrived, Pusa shared the history of the elephant in Thailand from hundreds of years ago and explained why it’s such a sacred and cherished animal. He explained the importance of the Mahout which is essentially the elephant trainer and keeper – all of the Mahouts who reside at the elephant park are dedicated to one elephant to feed, walk and bathe multiple times a day. They all grew up with elephants and are born into the business and the majority of the Mahouts at Baanchang are actually from Myanmar with only two locals. The job is very demanding but it was evident how much they care about these huge mammals and we got to see and feel it firsthand during our visit. Uniforms on and equipped with a very heavy bag of sugar cane, we met our first elephant which was a little intimidating due to her huge presence and also because she wasn’t restrained. Her curious trunk immediately started grabbing at our bags! It didn’t take long to get comfortable and feel more at ease simply because these creatures are gentle giants, only looking to bathe, eat and sleep – ahhh, the simple pleasures. The next two elephants we got to meet were the ones we would be spending the rest of our time with. It started to downpour on our walk to the shelter where we happily met them, tusks and all! We got more hands on and after the rain stopped we ventured on a walk through the jungle and some mud… really deep mud. Thankfully none of us lost a shoe and we ended this experience with a group bath and a few, rather large elephant poops along with some surprise sprays from our other elephant friends. After our “bath” we showered and packed up still grinning ear to ear in awe of what we just experienced. The day with our elephant buddies was unforgettable – we highly recommend it and would do again in a heartbeat. Dinner that night was Musashi followed by a night cap at this awesome local bar Baa(n) Din Cocktail Bar where we played some songs from our wedding mix, encouraged by the owner and bartender Tony. It was truly the best day to end our time in Chiang Mai.