Chiang Mai, Thailand
A travel bloggers insight guide and recommendations.
There are 6 main reasons that tourists to travel north of Bangkok to the much more relaxed and chilled out city of Chiang Mai. One: To see the exquisite Buddhist temples, Two: Because it is a much more relaxed and safer place than Bangkok, Three: As the gateway to jungle trekking into the surrounding mountains, Four: Probably most popular of all, to visit and experience a close up encounter with elephants. Five: For Thai massage and Six: Last but not least, the food!!
I had first visited Chiang Mai in 2014 as the meeting point with a tour guide for a 3 day trek up into the rain-forests of Northern Thailand, a trip that had turned out to be one of the best experiences of my travel adventures. For the few days spent in Chiang Mai on either side of the trekking adventure I had grown to like the laid back and friendly atmosphere of Chiang Mai itself. Based on this the aim of my return was simply to relax and enjoy that laid back atmosphere. Having gone trekking in the past I also wanted to have a close up encounter with elephants, but at a place that have a No ride policy. It is an unfortunate truth that many tourists visiting this part of Thailand do so with the aim of taking part in an Elephant encounter which has led to the rise of many unscrupulous and unethical Elephant farms. I use the term Elephant farm deliberately as they are little more than exploitative and cruel places run by people with little care for elephants, other than how to exploit them.
One of the main attractions for visitors to Chiang Mai are the many Wats of varying age and historical interest.
Night Market and Sunday Walking Street Market, Chiang Mai Old Town.
Nimman, Nimmanhaemin Road
Parts of Chiang Mai is fast changing into something resembling a more cosmopolitan city with the emergence and expansion of new areas such as Nimman, Nimmanhaemin Road, a ten minute ride away from the old town. The new Maya shopping mall is a destination shopping experience where all the usual top global brands can be found. Whilst just across the street is the new and trendy Think Park area. Here you will find little artisan craft shops, eclectic eateries, along with an array of contemporary and funky café’s.
(Picture of the staircase and chandelier featured in this post taken in Dom Café and a Top Tip for coffee, lunch and cake did i say cake? The cake is so good!)
This area is peopled by young trendy Thais rather than tourists, but should be on your must visit list when in Chiang Mai. If travelling from the old town flag down a Songthaew, as it’s a bit far to walk.
Blue Elephant Daily Care
After speaking to many tour operators and doing quite a bit of research it was recommended by the owner of the Hotel where I was staying, really great American chap called Lester, that we try a very reputable tour organiser just down the street from the Hotel. This turned out to be a perfect piece of good fortune as they had just started working with a newly set up elephant sanctuary which had a strict No Ride policy. Also, in comparison to other tours on offer at the various tour operators, although the price was slightly higher, this safari guaranteed small groups. With the max number being 9 sounded perfect, so we booked. The tour operator had told us we would be picked up in a small van if the group was for more than 4, or in a 4 x 4 if the group was for 4 or fewer people. This meant an early start the following morning with a 6:30 am pick up scheduled. To our surprise and delight we were met on the street outside the hotel by Mon (our guide for the trip) with a 4 X 4 and no other passengers, off to a flying start. Welcome to “Blue Daily Elephant Care”
The journey to the sanctuary takes about one and a half to two hours with the first part on flat standard roads. This changes once you reach the foot of the mountains when the climb starts and the road deteriorates somewhat into a series of uneven bends, twists and turns. Along the way we witness many elephants tied to ground stakes with heavy chains in small enclosures. Conditions at these places, even to the uneducated eye, do not look all that good. One that we saw had elephants with chains around their ankles housed under small corrugated iron roof shelters. These are the mass market tourist places that so many people write about on Trip Advisor in glowing terms overcome with emotion at being so close to elephants, meaning they often miss, or are prepared to overlook, the miserable conditions these elephants are kept in.
Blue Elephant Daily Care had only been open for 2 months at the time of our visit meaning we ended up in the very fortunate position of being the only two visitor’s booked for that day. This is a very well set up and run elephant sanctuary providing an opportunity for the community to take their elephants out of hard the hard labour of logging, whilst still providing a sustainable income for the local community. This particular centre is run by family members of the Karen tribe. What was very obvious was the very close bond and relationship on display between the Elephants and their Mahout (Elephant Keeper). They explained that an elephant is assigned to a Mahout when still young, with the bond between elephant and Mahout often lasting a lifetime. Yes the elephants are captive, yes the elephants are taken from their mothers not long after birth in order to establish a bond with their human keepers. The reality though for elephants in captivity in Thailand is either hard labour in the forests, or a life in a sanctuary supported by tourism. The responsibility for us as tourists and visitor is to only support those places where animal welfare is top of the agenda guaranteeing the Elephants are treated with respect, which also means not having to carry vain and self-indulgent tourists on their backs.
Blue Elephant Daily Care Safari can also be booked at the place mentioned in the blog post and where I booked mine the Ratchamanka Flora House,Ratchamanka Street, ask for May.
We flew with Emirates for the first time this trip. Great for us, given they fly direct from Manchester using an A 380. Overall I would say this was a pretty good experience, even in economy class, although the food typical of most airlines, was pretty awful. The vegetarian option was particularly poor and seemed to have been given little real thought, (Emirates take note please). Following our main flight from the UK via Dubai to Bangkok we took the short flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This involved a change of Airport as we landed in Suvarnabhumi Airport (Bangkok’s newest international Airport) with our flight to Chiang Mai departing from Don Mueang Airport.
There is a regular and free shuttle bus that connects the 2 main Bangkok airports leaving every 30 minutes, with more at peak times. The shuttle bus departs from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi on the 2nd Floor (arrivals) outside Door 3. When exiting door 3 you will see a desk where you show your boarding pass and will be issued with a ticket for the bus.
If only our onward flight with Thai Lion air had been as trouble-free. Thai Lion air has to be one of the worst budget airlines I have ever had the misfortune to book a flight with. It’s fine if you only have 15 kilos, or less, of luggage as they include this amount of checked luggage with all tickets. The problems start when you try to book additional luggage, which it seems is made deliberately impossible. You cannot book using their antiquated and useless website or app and cannot book at the Airport, unless you arrive 4 hours prior to departure. This leads to an impossible situation for any travelers connecting from international flights with check in baggage allowances of 30 kilo-. Bottom line, the staff at the inquiry counter were disinterested, rude, unhelpful and determined to try to exhort £300 for our excess luggage. In the end the situation was rescued by a very helpful security guard who advised us to send the excess bag using freight. Following some pleading on my part he even came with me in a taxi to the freight depot where he translated for me, and all done for a fraction of the cost the Thai Lion Air desk staff tried to demand. The end result I wish I had stuck with Air Asia and will not be booking any further flights with Thai Lion Air!
To get a feel for the old town its best to walk, wander the streets small and large getting lost along the way, but when the feet can no longer take the strain and the body the heat you have two main choices of transport, either a Tuk Tuk for private journey, or the favored local and informal mode of transport the Songthaew. These are basically adapted pickup trucks with two rows of covered seats in the back. They can be flagged down almost anywhere, just tell the driver where you want to go agree a price and hop into the back.
Top Travel Tip
Don’t fly with Thai Lion Air! Use Air Asia as they are far more user-friendly. Thankfully for the flight out of Chiang Mai and on to Siem Reap I booked Air Asia.
Top Travel Tip Air Asia
When booking flights with Air Asia it is always cheaper to book a baggage allowance at the time of original booking, as doing so at a later date invariably costs a lot more. If you are not sure of how much luggage allowance you will need it’s still cheaper to book more than you anticipate, rather than having to book the amount at a later date.
Following extensive searches and research I stumbled across a place called Seven Suns Hotel on Trip Advisor that sounded just right, located in the old town, it also offered a very large room for as reasonable budget and great breakfast thrown in. Its run by an American called Lester and his very charming Cambodian wife and can only be booked directly via email. Link below. I can honestly say I have now found the perfect place to stay for any future visits to Chiang Mai. You are genuinely made to feel at home and part of the family. Those 5 * ratings on Trip Advisor are there for a reason !
Although there are a great many good places to eat at in Chiang Mai I want to mention one in particular, Sub Seafood, as I believe it’s serves exceptional seafood at very reasonable prices and therefore is worthy of mention.
Dom Café, Think Park, is also worth a shout out for those venturing to Nimman area of Chiang Mai. Did i mention the cake? The cake is really good!!
This place was recommended by Lester at Seven Suns Hotel and I, in turn, can now also heartily recommend it too. Run by reformed female prisoners, it not only supports a very worthy cause giving the women the opportunity of a well paid career and the dignity that goes with that , but is also reasonably priced and offers a fantastic massage. This is a proper, joint twisting, pressure applied, massage which helps gets rid of all those aches and pains and certainly helped us to overcome mild jet lag. I came away feeling relaxed and de-stressed.
Next stop Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
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