Chiang Mai was one of the places I was most looking forward to. When I was in Asia last year I heard from loads of travellers how great it was. Hong Kong was nice, but I prefer the atmosphere in Southeast Asia, and Chiang Mai would mark the beginning.
Prior to arriving I had done more research on Chiang Mai than most places. I was looking for a couple races I could do while I’m here and Chiang Mai has a full, half, and quarter marathon the weekend before I head back to Toronto in December. If I was able to keep up some level of running while in Asia this was a race I really wanted to do.
I didn’t have a firm plan of what I wanted to do while in Chiang Mai. A little running, maybe visit an elephant camp (but not just any one, more on that below), and have some khao soi.
I stayed at the Green Tulip while I was in Chiang Mai, which was in the southwest area of the old city. As it turns out this wasn’t the best location to be, but I didn’t mind walking a bit. My first day in Chiang Mai I rented a bicycle and road all around the old city. The old city is a rectangle, and is surrounded by a moat. The east side seemed to be where most of the places were that catered to tourists.
Doi Suthep-Pui National Park
On my second day in Chiang Mai I signed up for a mountain bike tour down one of the mountains in the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. I’m not very experienced on a mountain bike, but the tour operator assured me I would be fine on the intermediate route. We were driven to the top of the mountain and then took trails back down. The park was beautiful; coffee plantations, rice fields, beautiful views, and lots of greenery. Unfortunately when I was riding I had to constantly focus on the trail because it was very technical. Our guide was a rider for the Thai national team, and he didn’t see why we would have any problems, but there was one section in particular where both myself, and a friend from Switzerland went down. We did take a number of stops along the way to take pictures and take it all in. We finished our ride at a gorgeous lake and had lunch.
HERE is the Garmin file for the ride. I forgot to stop it when we got to the lake.
Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Centre
I wasn’t sure if I was going to go to an elephant camp or not while in Chiang Mai. I’ve heard a lot of the camps treat the elephants very poorly. I don’t consider myself an animal activist, but I also didn’t want to contribute to their torture. I heard about the Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Centre from a couple of guys in my hostel. They said that they had done some research and heard great things about this camp, and 1 other. At the Ran-Tong Camp this buy elephants from circuses, hard labour, and other unethical camps. At the Ran-Tong camp they don’t use hooks, nor beat the elephants. They are controlled through voice commands from their mahout (elephant trainer).
I was picked up from my hostel and driven to the Ran-Tong camp about an hour away. 2 other couples shared the van. We would all be participating in the half-day camp together. Because I was the odd man out I got my own elephant to work with.
Arriving at the elephant camp I felt like I was in a completely different world (I suppose I was). We arrived on a hill above the camp and could see down over the grounds. Below we could see many elephants walking freely, followed closely by their mahouts. We walked down the stairs into the camp, pausing briefly as an elephant walked by. Once we arrived we were given traditional mahout clothing to change into (interestingly none of the mahouts were in this attire), it was expected to get messy.
The day began with us feeding elephants. 8 elephants lined up with their trunks stretched out asking for bananas. Their trunk was obviously very muscular, and it was a very weird sensation when they grabbed the banana from you.
After the feeding we were each matched with an elephant. Come Moon (Sshhh-moon) and I would be a team. Come Moon was a female who had scars on her body. They weren’t totally sure about her history, but expect the scars are from years of hard labour. I was introduced to Come Moon, as well as basic elephant commands. (It wasn’t until later that I learned how useless these commands were coming from me. The guide for the group told us that the elephants know their mahouts voice and small, and will only listen to them. The guide said the elephants wouldn’t listen to him either.) Armed with basic elephant commands we had the opportunity to ride the elephants. Ran-Tong doesn’t use chairs because they are very bad for the elephants. I was right on Come Moon’s shoulders, just behind his ears. There is no harness or saddle. The elephants do wear a necklace-like rope around their neck that I could use to balance if I felt like I was falling off.
Once I was on Come Moon she was free to roam the park. The mahout would ensure she didn’t leave the property, but otherwise it was up to her where we went. She decided to walk up a very narrow path up a hill that had me a little nervous. It seemed like it would be hardly wide enough for me to walk up, but she had no problem.
Our walk ended in a pond where I gave Come Moon a good scrubbing.
The whole experience was great, and I’m very happy I did it. I suppose there really is no way of knowing just how good (ethical) the camp is, I was only on site for about 4 hours. But it did seem like a good place for the elephants.
HERE’S the official website for the Ran-Tong Elephant Save & Rescue Centre.
I had some great food in Chiang Mai, and some really interesting food experiences. I ate at a few of the restaurants, but also tried a lot of the street food on offer.
Khao Soi is called the food of Chiang Mai. It’s chicken and rice noodles in curry with fried rice noodles on top. I really enjoyed it when I had it in Toronto, so I was keen to try it. I arrived in Chiang Mai around lunch, so finding some Khao Soi was priority number 1. I found a place just down the street from my hostel that had it for 90baht ($3). A little pricy by Chiang Mai standards, but I was craving it so I decided to splurge. It was really good. Over the rest of my time in Chiang Mai I must have had khao soi at least once a day. At some of the cheaper places (40baht, $1.35) the chicken wasn’t as good, but the curry and noodles were always great.
Green curry was another dish I was keen to try. It’s less of a traditional curry taste, and more of a refreshing taste. It was good, but I didn’t need to have it more than once.
Just down from my hostel was an all natural, organic restaurant called Jane’s Kitchen. The food was more typical of what you would find at a healthy restaurant back home than Thai food. I stopped in twice. The first time I ordered the carrot salad with Dijon dressing. It was really nice. A little pricy by Chiang Mai standards, but it was nice to get some vegetables in and the home made dressing was really good. The second time I got the chunky monkey shake made with coconut milk, bananas, and home made chocolate peanut butter. The shake was really nice, and it was great to talk to Jane, the cook and owner. She makes homemade pasta that I plan on trying when I’m back in Chiang Mai before the half marathon.
The most interesting food is always street food. My first Sunday I went to the Sunday Market in the evening for dinner. I ended up settling on some disappointing pad thai. I also had a banana goldfish cake that looked really neat, but wasn’t so great.
My second night I decided to try soup from a stand across from the hostel. I didn’t ask the price before I ordered (I had heard it was 20baht) so I think I got charged the suckers price of 40baht. It was a noodle soup that was good, but I was keen to find something a little more flavourful.
I had noticed that every day stand opens in the late afternoon that has a dozen woks, all filled with different soup type mixtures. This seemed the most popular spot in all of Chiang Mai for Thai people to get food, but I never saw a foreigner there. I decided I’d give it a shot. I went to the stand to grab dinner. The lady running it seemed happy to see me, I don’t think too many foreigners give it a try, but spoke no English. The first soup I pointed to she nodded no, I assume it was because it was extremely hot. So I pointed to another and she nodded yes. It looked like chicken or pork in it (likely pork) with some sort of yellow-red liquid and something that looked like grapefruit, but had a consistency and taste similar to potato. It came in a bag with a spoon for 15baht ($0.50). I tentatively tried it and it was really good! It definitely had some spice and was just filled with flavour. I liked it so much I went back for another, this time splurging the extra 5baht for some sticky rice as well. I tried something that I think had pork. It was a thicker consistency, almost like tomato sauce. It too was very good, but as I ate my mouth got hotter and hotter. Right after I finished I decided on a bit of ice cream to cool my mouth down. I was really happy with my decision to give this place a try.
One of the foods I missed from my last trip was Thai pancakes. They seem to be everywhere in south Thailand, but aren’t as popular up north. I managed to find them in the night market. I got banana-Nutella, and it was just as good as I remembered!
Running is Chiang Mai was a lot of fun. There’s a moat that surrounds the city. Inside the moat traffic goes counter-clockwise, outside the moat it goes clockwise. It was a natural choice of where to run because it was easy to follow, and traffic wasn’t a problem to navigate. Inside the moat a lap is about 6.4km. I ran one laps inside the moat the first 3 mornings there, and then on my final morning I ran one lap inside the moat and one lap outside the moat for a longer 13k run. I began feeling better running in the heat and picked up the tempo in some of my runs.
HERE is the Garmin file from one of my runs.
Chiang Mai was great, and I plan to return for the half marathon on Dec 21. Until then, it’s due north to Chiang Rai.