Even though I love Thailand and have visited Bangkok on several trips, until recently I had never been to one of the country’s most popular cities for visitors – Chiang Mai. One of the legendary stops on the Southeast Asia backpackers route, I think that’s partly why I skipped visiting. I imagined a city teeming with budget travelers, backpackers encamped for months at a time with little to do except live cheaply and relax. I was wrong. I’m glad I decided to visit because what I discovered surprised me in every positive way imaginable. I found a large, bustling city full of life and, yes, lots of backpackers, but much more than that. Chiang Mai is also home to some of the best luxury hotels not only in Thailand, but all of Asia, and that luxury lifestyle is actually what finally convinced me to visit. More than that though, I discovered a destination totally unlike any other place in Thailand I have visited and, like millions before me, I did indeed fall in love with this northern Thailand community. A lot surprised me during my brief stay in this ancient city, including a few points that make it a fun place to visit for just about any traveler.
Chiang Mai has long been considered Thailand’s second capital; its northern position making it important strategically as well as culturally. This geographic importance means it’s also a great city from which to explore the entire region, especially since it’s also the largest city in the area by far. Whether it’s Chiang Rai or the Golden Triangle region itself, there’s plenty to see and do outside of the city. Since it was my first time visiting Chiang Mai, I wanted to spend most of my time there, exploring the city and learning all about it. One important reason though why I decided to visit in the first place was to spend the day at a very special facility about an hour or so outside of town. The Elephant Nature Park was created in order to rescue elephants horribly mistreated in the tourism and logging industries. It’s a place where they can be slowly rehabilitated and given the life that all elephants deserve. Sadly, many tourists don’t understand that riding elephants, watching them in circuses, painting or so on involves significant abuse to the elephant. When talking about responsible tourism, it’s important to know that if you see an animal doing something that isn’t natural for them, then it took severe treatment to get them to that point. In the case of elephants, they undergo a horrible ritual known as the Crush, which destroys their resolve and will to live through slow torture. Add to that the pain endured during the activities themselves, and you hopefully begin to understand why elephant tourism is so incredibly harmful to these beautiful animals. At the ENP, these elephants are rescued and a team of professionals and volunteers start the long process of helping them enjoy life again. I visited as a day guest, one of many, there to learn more about the sanctuary as well as interact with the rescued elephants through feedings, bathings and more. It was the first activity I booked when planning my trip and it was everything I had hoped it would be.
Not All Backpackers
I was honestly worried that the city would be inundated with 20-something, longyi-wearing backpackers. I’ve been to places like that before and while I don’t have anything against backpackers, it’s not me, it’s not my style and I was frankly looking for something different on my trip. I needn’t have worried though because, while there are indeed plenty of backpackers and budget travelers floating through Chiang Mai, the visitor base is actually a lot more varied than I had anticipated but, ultimately, I shouldn’t have been shocked at that. The city is home to some of the best hotels and resorts in the world, and amongst those unshaven backpackers there were folks like me, there to explore and learn, but to also enjoy some much needed R&R. My oasis in the sea of chaos was the world famous 137 Pillars House, a true haven of peace and tranquility if there ever was one. Located in a quiet neighborhood, its prime location means that the city is easily reached, and yet the property feels like it’s a million miles away. Add in outstanding comfort and service, and it’s the luxury break I needed.
I’ve been to many different religious buildings throughout my life, far too many to count. In countries like Thailand, that means spending time visiting the many Buddhist temples but in Chiang Mai, there’s one that stands out among the rest. What is usually called the #1 “must-do” experience in Chiang Mai, I quickly realized that Doi Suthep Temple certainly deserves that level of praise and more. One of Thailand’s most holy sites, the first temple on top of the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai was built in the 1300s, although over the years many more have been added to it. In the 1930s a road was thankfully built so that anyone could access the holy mountain top and today it’s a glittery testament to the importance of Buddhism in Thailand’s daily life. It’s also just a gorgeous place to visit and although the skies were a little cloudy that day, they parted as I arrived to the temple providing me that sunny morning I had hoped for. In planning my trip I didn’t feel appreciate how different this temple was from all the rest, and I’m so happy that I had extra time there to enjoy the entire sight and temples.
Fun Place to Be
The first night in Chiang Mai, I followed the sage advice of my 137 Pillars butler and enjoyed a delicious Indian meal at the Whole Earth Restaurant. Afterwards, I meandered along the bustling streets, packed with vendors, tourists, aromas of food and the din of a thousand people trying to occupy the same place at the same time. Chiang Mai is famous for its massive night market, so I did some window shopping, enjoyed a little ice cream and just took in as much of the scene as I could. More than anything else, it’s those simple moments that endear Thailand to me. There’s just nothing else quite like it in the world, the seemingly chaotic scene belying an order one doesn’t expect. Throughout my several days in Chiang Mai, whether it was at the night market, a temple or at my hotel, I realized why this city attracts people from all walks of life and every corner of the globe. It’s a fun place to be, it’s a type of travel entertainment that isn’t found on a stage or in a theater, the city itself is theater and stage. Visiting Chiang Mai I played my role well I think, experiencing as much of this vibrant city as I could with a firm commitment to return again soon.