By Steve on May 16, 2014

It was a record… we were in our room laying on the bed less than an hour after wheels down. We flew from Phuket in the south of Thailand to Chiang Mai in the north. Usually it takes some time to get bags and figure out how to get somewhere… not this time. We didn’t even have a place booked for the night yet and had to figure that out too.

After getting dropped off in a part of the old city that was recommended to us, we went shopping for a guesthouse to stay in. We stumbled on a gem: the three of us had a room with three beds, AC, fridge, great wifi, and pool for 500 baht (5 USD per person). WHAT!? Chiang Mai is cheap. It also happens to be an awesome city. Not that big of a city, but it has tons of history and culture. For one thing, the place has a moat around the old central city with ruined walls around the edge that were built to keep invaders out in 1296 AD. Moats are super cool.

We got into Chiang Mai early in the day, so we headed out for a walking tour of the temples of the city. There are tons of Buddhist temples in the old city, actually too many for tourists like us. So we picked a few and tried to be respectful as we took in the culture. Buddhism is one of those things that is foreign to me… something I definitely respect but don’t have that much knowledge of. It is such a peaceful, rational, and self-aware religion… three things that most religions should be jealous of.

That night I had been messaging with a fellow WWOOFer from NZ, Leo, and he was in Chiang Mai but leaving the next day. We met up with Leo and his friend at an awesome local thai restaurant, then to get drinks. It was a good night and by the end, pitchers of Chang beer were disappearing between us, Leo, his friend, and three French girls they knew. Of course by the end, Zak had the French girl’s numbers. Cheeky.

On Wednesday, the three of us decided to do a cooking class. I’ll admit, I was on the fence with it, but in the end it was definitely money well spent. The man teaching (I forgot his name, damn) was jolly and animated, so there was never a dull moment. There were only 7 of us in the class because it was the low season; we all got a lot of attention. We made traditional Thai cuisine including green curry, chicken with cashew nut, fish soufflé, Thai fried fish cakes, and tom yam soup. If you go to Thailand, definitely take a cooking class; Thai food is out of this world and I miss it already.

Thursday was eclectic to say the least. It started out with a taxi ride to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (if that’s too much of a mouthful for you, most people just call it Doi Suthep (doy-soo-tep)), which is the historic temple on top of the mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai. Thumbs up.

Once we got down from the mountain, it was time for another Thai massage, but for this one, we wanted to get them at the Chiang Mai Women’s Prison. As part of a rehabilitation and training program, the women prisoners are trained and can earn money practicing massage for when they are released. They are working towards turning their life around and we wanted to help. The actual prison massage center was out of appointments for that day, but they directed us to a massage parlor run by a group of ex-prisoners who started their own business. Same same for us I guess. We got rubbed down by some ex-prisoners and it might be the best massage I’ve had in my life. I haven’t had many, but still.

We scurried home on our rented bikes from the massage parlor and quickly changed; we had pick-up ultimate to play at Chiang Mai University! A friend of a friend was living in Chiang Mai and told us about this pick-up game, so we bee-lined it to the rugby fields for a great game of ultimate. It was one of the best random things we have done on the trip, for the ultimate yea but more for the people we met in Chiang Mai. They have a great group of players there, and we were given a contact for the upcoming tournament in Phnom Penh. We were planning on trying to pick up with a team for that tournament, the Mekong Cup, but this solidified it that we had a team. Awesome… thanks Céad, Adam, Rachel, and Greg!

For our last day traveling with Zak, we learned how to mount, ride, and wash elephants. In the morning, we learned commands and then practiced on Aranya, a very chill 38 year old elephant. Our first reaction to seeing the elephant up close: holy shit that thing is huge. We got acquainted with her like any logical person does – by feeding her a million bananas. Made sure she’s fed. When it came time to mount the elephant, I was the first guinea pig (it was only Zak, Maria, and I at this point). Elephants are amazing creatures because they are so smart; they know their own name and they remember faces (which is why we spent time feeding her first). So I walked up to her, yelling “Aranya, SONG SUNG!” Me and two thai guys were yelling so she got the message. She bended her front leg as we commanded and I climbed up her leg grabbing the top of her ear with one hand and the rope on her back with the other. I was up on her huge neck: shit’s crazy. We rode around together practicing commands, then Maria and Zak did the same thing.

After lunch, a Chinese couple joined us and we all got on elephants. Zak got to bond more with Aranya while Maria and I met a new dude, Miguel. We rode them through the jungle and up through the river back to the elephant camp. The elephants sat down in the river and we helped wash them off. Elephants don’t sweat, so they need the water to cool off.

A day well spent bonding with elephants turned into a night well spent funking out to reggae tunes. They have great live music in Chiang Mai and we gave it a listen for Zak’s last night with us. These Thai guys were belting out perfect reggae and we had to double check that we were actually in Thailand. A night of dancing and late night kebabs ended our time with Zak. It was a hell of a time. Zak took off to Bangkok, and we headed up to Pai for two nights.

Our time in Pai was nice and relaxed, renting a motorbike to tour the countryside. Pai is a small village in a valley close to the Myanmar border, but has developed into a backpacker destination. One highlight was riding the motorbike to a waterfall with a natural slide and swimming pool!

Two days later, we once again descend from the mountains to Chiang Mai. So far, if I could live anywhere in SE Asia, it would be Chiang Mai. Obviously, the islands are a paradise, but there is so much to do in Chiang Mai and the vibe is unbeatable. Sadly after a total of six nights there, we wanted to get moving on. Next up for us was a night train to Bangkok, our last stop in Thailand.