After a long night out in Bangkok, we boarded a flight to check out the northern city of Chiang Mai. My friend, Rachelle, and I were out in Bangkok celebrating her birthday and had taken a two week trip to explore Thailand, and we were officially of to our next destination. Bangkok was so much fun, we were excited to see what this next location had in store for us.
I did some research prior to leaving California, and this was the city I was most excited for. We were coming there just in time for Songkran, the Thai new year celebration. The holiday is a celebration of the change in seasons and the city basically ends up in an all out water fight for three days (which was actually longer than 3 days, as we found out). We also didn’t realize until Bangkok, that a lot of people actually close shop or take vacations during this time to spend it with their families. A lot of people in Bangkok actually are from northern cities like Chiang Mai and they go back to meet and honor their elders for the holiday. Not only were we excited for the water festivities, but two of our MUST-DO items on our list of Thailand were just outside of Chiang Mai: Elephant Nature Park and the Bua Tong Waterfalls. How do you not associate elephants with Thailand? I was so excited to see these grand animals, but the more research I did on the matter, the more I learned about the responsibility of finding the right Elephant Park to visit. Not all parks are created equal. Bua Tong, also known as “the sticky waterfalls,” are a series of falls in the northern forests of Thailand. The “sticky” quality comes from a special mineral deposit over the rocks which make them feel textured enough to climb though. Temperatures were a steady 106 degrees the whole time we were in Chiang Mai, so we really looked forward to this opportunity to cool off. Lastly, Chiang Mai is a cultural and historical center for Thailand. This city dates back to the 1200s and holds lots of what makes Thailand and it’s people so special. We were really blown away with the temples, the people, and the nature that this city offered us… that no other city in Thailand really did.
Top 4 reasons why I loved Chiang Mai:
- I guess this doesn’t really count for being in the city, but Bua Tong Waterfalls definitely is my top choice for my favorite thing to do, not just in Chiang Mai, but in Thailand. We took a songthew, which basically is a covered truck with two long bench seats, about an hour outside of town to go out to the falls. The original plan was to rent scooters for the day and ride out there, but the hotel we stayed at did not recommend that as there were many travelers on the roads for the holiday. They also let us know that the falls is not as it used to be. Global warming has also affected Thailand and has caused a drought. Some farming areas do not have enough water for crops and Bua Tong is actually a little dried out. We really had no idea about the drought until that point, but I’m glad our hotel staff actually told us. I felt like what we were about to do was something that was limited, and that with this resource changing in this climate that there was a bit of a time sensitivity on it. I hope one day my daughter has a chance to go visit and have the same experience. It makes me sad thinking about what she may loose in her lifetime, so a friendly PSA, please do your part to care for these resources. Sorry for the tangent, back to Bua Tong. The day was hot and we were one of the firsts on the scene. The drive took us into rural Thailand, and we got to see some farmlands with beautiful mountain landscapes. As you enter into part of the forest, there’s a large clearing made as a parking area with some food stands all around. We’ve arrived at the highest point of the falls and we immediately wanted to climb down. I took some photos, but then packed it all away in my waterproof bag and took out my GoPro that my brother loaned me for the trip. The top of the falls were slippery and lightly covered in algae. I slipped almost immediately and hoped that the rest of the way down wouldn’t be as treacherous. They had a couple ropes tied to some trees to assist in getting down the first couple feet. As we worked our way down, we started to see less algae and more bright white rocks. At first, the rocks feel sandy, like it gives a little when you touch it. The more we moved down, the more comfortable we got, and soon we were all over the falls, going in every direction. The area was actually broken up into different series, with small landings at the end of the series where you can just relax in the waters. You could even just sit in the rocks and lean your back right into the cascading waters. The water was clear and refreshing on such a hot day. We climbed all the way down and all the way back up on a different side to experience as much as we could. The views into the forests were beautiful and more and more people were joining in on the fun as the day went on. All age groups were on the rocks, even little toddlers. Parents would take some stairs down to a landing area where their young to wade in the collected waters and climb up some of the smaller rocks along the bottom of the series. I couldn’t help but think of how much my little water baby, Evie would love this experience. After getting back to the top, we visited one of the grilling food stands and got a little bit of everything. We couldn’t believe what an awesome time we just had, and celebrated it over a great meal.
Heart watermelons for breakfasts. Driving to Bua Tong. Almost at the bottom of the falls, taking a break in the water. Chicken grilling at the food stand. Picnic area at the top of the falls.
- Elephant Nature Park was the one activity I did book ahead of time as I heard it fills up fast. The ENP shuttle came to get us bright and early from our hotel and we had about an hour and a half ride until we got to the park in the mountains. Technically, I guess this doesn’t count as being in Chiang Mai, but they do have their main office in the heart of the Old City walls where you can learn more about their program. Our guide played a video for part of the trip where you learn about the background of elephants in Thailand; the different jobs they have, how they are trained, their natural sensitivities, and what ENP does in their rescue and rehabilitation process. In my research, I understood some of the elephant attractions were inhumane, but I didn’t really understand to what degree these animals really suffer until that shuttle ride to the park. On the way up to the park, we passed elephants in the streets with other riding companies; tourists in the seats on their backs and sitting on their neck was the “mahout” (the elephant trainer). The elephants all have a mahout, who sits on their neck with a large metal hook that they use to stab the animal in areas like their ears which are really sensitive. The mahout is also in charge of breaking the elephant’s spirit as a baby, torturing the animal until it only follows the trainer. The process was difficult to watch at points it was so sad. Elephant Nature Park is a natural home and sanctuary for these animals, most retired from working in the logging industry, giving tourists rides, being street performers, and other jobs where they have been mistreated, injured, and malnourished. The single day visit to the park included walking with them, feeding them, and washing them in the river. In the middle of the hot day, we took a break and were fed an amazing spread of vegetarian food. My friend, Rachelle, and I piled our plate and ate it all so fast you would have thought we were in an eating contest. From that we were able to walk to the river and cool off with the elephants by washing them down. Naturally, once our elephant was refreshed, Rachelle and I continued to cool off in a water fight tossing buckets of water at each other like we were kids again. ENP was really a magical place and you can see how much people care about the animals. Not only is it a sanctuary for elephants but it is home to hundreds of water buffaloes, dogs, and cats. By the end of the day, most of us on the trip took a needed nap in the shuttle ride back to our hotels. It was a jam packed day filled with so many great memories that I know will be with me forever. Water buffalo staying cool in the puddle. My friend, Rachelle found her elephant soul mate. Walking with the elephants in the park. The oldest elephant on the grounds. Sleeping dogs all over the park. When washing elephants turn into water fights with my friend, Rachelle in the river. It was a great way to cool off in the heat for us and elephants.
- My next favorite thing would probably be experiencing the culture of Thailand in this city. What a great place to really get to know a history of a country and it’s people! The temple on the mountaintop of Doi Suthep National Park is one of the most sacred temples in Thailand. Was Phra That Doi Suthep was actually the first place that we went to see once we checked into our hotel in Chiang Mai. We took our first songthew up the windy roads on the mountain. They dropped us off at the base of a large staircase that lead up to the temple. On the way up, we met Hill Tribe girls, in beautiful traditional costumes, playing on the steps. It was really cute to see them all playing together and interacting with the tourists. There was one that reminded me of my daughter and she became a muse for a little photoshoot on the steps that day. As we came closer to the top, you can hear all types of bells ringing. From little chimes, to large bass-y bells, the mountaintop played a tune for all the visitors. You can’t help but feel like the sound alone makes it special. The day wasn’t clear enough for the perfect view, but you can actually see the whole city of Chiang Mai from the temple. Once we went inside, I was blown away with all the bright gold from the stupas to the statues, they were all a shinny gold. Aside from the incredible Wat Doi Suthep, inside the walls of the Old City Chiang Mai held so much to explore. The walls are home to some iconic temples, the night market by Tha Pae Gate, and many cultural centers to learn more. The friendliest of monks are out on the streets offering assistance when we were trying to find our way around. We spent a lot of time wandering around on new adventures within the walls; finding friendly French hostels to get cold beers, having the opportunity for Rachelle to eat frog for the first time with a street food market, exploring the ruins of one of the older temples Wat Chedi Luang, and catching Thai dancers at the beautiful temple of Wat Phra Singh. Being in such close proximity to Burma, we also learned a little bit of Burmese culture by meeting some friendly transplants in the area. Our hotel, the Shewe Wana, was also some of the friendliest people we encountered the entire trip, but also was a lesson of the Chinese Colonial style of the area. There really was so much to soak in here, and we were so lucky to have the opportunity to meet so many sweet people to help us understand it all. In the songthew to the temple. Stairs up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Hill tribe girls in traditional costume. These girls were too cute. Inside the courtyard temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. That guy should’ve covered his shoulders. Chimes line the surrounding building (at the top corner of the photo) to make calming sounds on the mountain. Larger bells on the outside of the temple chime as well. Sun showers on the streets of Chiang Mai as we left Doi Suthep. Traditional northern Thai dish, Khao Soi. A curry soup with noodles, crispy egg wonton, and pickled vegetables. It was delicious, and can be found everywhere out there . Night out drinking and meeting new people with my friend, Rachelle. Bold Hill Tribe fabrics. Stressful scene of the changing of statues for the New Year. Beautiful “Golden Shower” trees are all over northern Thailand. One of the oldest temples, Wat Chedi Luang Vivid colors and intricate details of the temples in Thailand. Buddha statues, one for every month, lined up with bowls of water for cleansing.
Silver water bowls with saffron, tamarind, jasmine, and ice. Colorful banners decorate the city for Songkran. Various Songkran cultural activities all week long in the Old City. Food cart on the street where Rachelle was able to try frog for the first time. After selecting frog, you can select the preparation, and they make it fresh. Sunrise at Wat Phra Singh. I wish I had better photos of this grand temple, but there was actually lots going on that morning for the holiday and a lot of areas were blocked off. Mural in the streets of Chiang Mai. The third type of “coconut pancake” we tried out in Thailand. This one was more like a gooey cookie with shredded coconut fried with coconut milk and rice flour.
- Lastly was the celebration of Songkran was an experience of a lifetime. In the early research, we learned Chiang Mai was the best city to be in for this holiday, but I don’t think I understood why until we were there. Aside from the families all traveling to be with their elders for the holiday, there’s lots of traditions that are practiced here. Walking around the city, you see vendors selling birds to release and packaged meals to give to the monks. The temples have statues lined up with bowls of scented water used to clean the statues in preparation for the new year. Starting the year off with cleanliness is important, so the city is a buzz with energy leading up to the actual celebrations. Tourists flock to the city to be a part of the craziness that ensues, so the city is packed with people. Parties at bars and restaurants attract people passing though with music and dancing. Water guns are everywhere as well as places to refill; the streets are lined with big barrels, there are people in the canals and rivers, there are even trucks with tubs of water and people driving around to join in the fight. Beware; water may be cold, it may be hot, it may come from a tap, and it may out of the waste water! Keep eyes and mouth closed as you roam in the streets. Waterproof bags are a must! The GoPro came in handy here as everything gets wet. You couldn’t help but dive right into the fun as everyone is a part of it. Even with locals and all the tourists speaking different languages, there was a general understanding through it all. We all bonded together, teaming up with complete strangers, and finding opponents around every corner. We got back to the hotel, dripping wet, but grinning ear to ear.
Don’t forget your waterproof mascara.