Chiang Mai lies in the northern part of Thailand and can easily be reached by (night)train from Bangkok. It’s said to be the quieter, more laid back Bangkok with much more agreeable climate. And it did in fact have a very nice vibe to it.
How to get to Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai has an airport, but you can easily hop on a night train that leaves daily from Bangkok. That’s in fact exactly what we did a couple of days ago. There are a few different trains that plow that same route. Train #9 and #10 are said to be fairly new and run on electricity, which makes the journey somewhat quieter. You can book your tickets directy through the State Railway of Thailand’s website. It’s recommended to book your ticket ahead, as it sells out quickly. We got our tickets probably a month ahead and could only get 1st class tickets for the price of around $49 per person. Apparently there was a school class of some sort traveling north that same day as well, so we were actually quite glad we had our private compartment instead of the crammed cabins in 2nd class. We had two seats in our compartment, that were turned into sleepers by the chef du cabine (?).
Chiang Mai itself is a laid-back town with lots of little cafes, shops and a fair amount of sights.
What to see/do in Chiang Mai
The city of Chiang Mai is a great starting point to venture into the Jungle, the National Park to go trekking or spend some time with Elephants at the Elephant Nature Park or their supported projects. The city itself has a couple of impressive temples (like Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, or Wat Sri Suphan) you can visit and also an excellent tailor, should you be looking for something tailor made (his shop is called «Pro Tailor» and you can find him on Facebook as «Mr. Suit»). Oliver got a cashemere wool suit and two cottong shirts made for him and paid around USD 380.- incl. fitting and shipping everything to Switzerland.
What did we do: We spent one day at an Elephant Nature Park project called «The Karen Experience». We got picked up at our Guesthouse and drove about 2h to the Jungle, where we spent the day with 3 elephants. We were able to feed them, take them for a walk in the Jungle (well, strictly speaking they were taking us, we just followed), then we gave them a mud bath (yes, there was also poo involved) and washed them in the river. I’m typically not the animal person, but these elephants and the Elephant Nature Park touched me. I’ve never been so close to an Elephant and had no idea about their sufferings from humans and I cannot recommend Elephant Nature Park highly enough, as they are completely cruelty free and give aged, mistreated elephants a new home and life. If you ever visit Thailand or other countries where they offer Elephant riding, please don’t do it. Elephants are wild animals and the process of getting them trained to be with humans is nothing but cruel and involves chaining baby elephants up for days to break their soul and treating their wounds with motor oil. I was able to witness a young 12 year old elephant in nature and saw how much fun he had playing in the jungle, squicking around and trampling half of the jungle down in excitement, it was pure joy and would love to know that there are more elephants in nature like that.
The second day we spent at Doi Inthanon National Park, the highest point of Thailand. We have booked a hiking tour through TAD (Tourism Bureau of Thailand) in town. We were directed to this agency as apparently the VAT from tours sold go back to the town. We got picked up from our guesthouse again and drove for about 1.5 hours up to the mountains. Doi Inthanon is famous for the two stupas they have built for the late king and his wife for their 60th birthday. Eventhough we were traveling during dry season (December), we weren’t lucky with the weather and clouds denied us the supposedly spectacular view of the valley.
We were glad we booked the hike, as just the stupas weren’t that impressive. After we had time to visit the stupas, it was time for lunch and then we took off for our hike around the Jungle. We didn’t have grand expectations and were actually pleasantly surprised by our leisurly trek/walk and our guides (one from a tour agency and one local hilltribe guide, which is mandatory and gives the tribe’s people work, so they don’t get involved with the Opium business again – as per the late king’s order/project). We were able to spot a quite large viper and watch some local girls go fishing in the river.
Where to stay
Chiang Mai is basically organized within a neat old town square, where you’ll find all the sights, guesthouses, cafés, shops and tour agencies. We decided to stay a bit outside in a very nice guesthouse called «DoubleTree House». While the location might not be the best, it is all made up by the charming house and great staff there.
Where to eat
This is Thailand. It really doesn’t matter where you’ll eat. Be it the night market, a riverside pub or posh restaurant, it’s all going to be very tasty! You’ll find plenty of choices in all price categories to keep you going. Be sure to try the local dish called «Khao Soi» (kind of a noodle soup), you can only get in the north.