Pictures of Thailand have danced in my head ever since I caught my first case of the travel bug. The furious traffic and frenetic energy of Bangkok intrigued me. The sight of golden pagodas and taste of coconut curries excited me. And promises of pristine, desolate, white sandy beaches thrilled me.
With expectations sky-high, we wanted to devote a considerable amount of time to getting to know this so-called ‘Land of Smiles.’ As such, we used Thailand as our base in Southeast Asia, passing through Bangkok thrice and dividing up the rest of our time exploring the North and South of the country.
Immediately recognizable, Thailand was a stark contrast to its underdeveloped Laos neighbor. For better and for worse, Thailand offered many amenities we’d been missing: paved roads, well-appointed accommodation and modern trains and buses. This comes with a cost as 7-11’s and heavy traffic and pollution now joined the playing field.
Our first stop was Chiang Mai located in the mountains of northern Thailand. It’s the cultural capital of the country and a national treasure for Thai people. We hoped to discover a quaint town built into the mountainside, but soon learned our expectations would be given a reality check.
Chiang Mai, with a population hovering just below two million people, is more city than country, more polluted than pure and more hectic than peaceful. While golden pagodas are buzzing with streams of tangerine-clad monks, it’s also a place where traffic and whizzing mopeds are plentiful and the sex tourism thriving.
Where was the Chiang Mai travelers had raved about? Digging a little deeper into our pockets we were about to find out. A belated birthday splurge introduced us to Chiang Mai’s posh portfolio of adventures.
Enveloped by lush, mist-shrouded hills, Chiang Mai has a privileged setting. Stepping outside the city, these surroundings create an ideal backdrop for exclusive properties. We upped the ante and settled in at a delightful bed and breakfast along the river banks of the Ping River running through the city. At Baan Orapin, a 100-year old mansion turned B&B, we began to understand what Chiang Mai’s appeal was all about.
And then there was the food. It didn’t take long for us to begin to unravel this piece of the puzzle. Juice shops on every corner introduced us to the mango, banana and dragon fruit shakes that would soon become our staple. All the coconut-milk curries we’d dreamt about, however, took the backburner, as we discovered the joys of Thailand’s northern cuisine. Here, in Thailand’s cooler climate, dishes are more stew-like. Spices and herbs from the dense forests are incorporated into dishes and pickled cabbage and lime add a hint of sourness to traditionally spicy dishes. Also setting northern cuisine apart is the sticky rice served with every meal and eaten with your hands.
For animal lovers, Chiang Mai packs a big punch. On a visit to Elephant Nature Park (see video here), we spent a day caring for abandoned and abused elephants. Bathing, feeding and getting to know the stories of these gentle giants, we enjoyed an eye-opening day at the elephant sanctuary home to 33 rescued elephants.
We also visited the nearby Tiger Kingdom (see video here), where we were face to face with the massive beasts. Ryan snuggled up to a big guy and I, smiling ear-to-ear, played with three-month old tiger cubs. While we enjoyed this unique encounter, we realized there may have been some shady things going on behind closed doors. The big tigers seemed a bit lethargic and made us question if they were being tranquilized. Further, their small cages suggested they are likely mistreated and looking back we do not recommend a visit here. Your money could be well-spent elsewhere.
A Piece of the Pai
We made a brief detour north of Chiang Mai to the town of Pai, Thailand. We were anxious to get to know the so-called ‘mountain paradise,’ but what we discovered was more hippy commune than Thai escape. Crawling with ex-pat, dreadlock Rastafarians and filled with cafes blaring both Bobs (yes the Marley and the Dylan) this town seemed to have lost any Thai-ness it ever had.
To add to the strange aura, we had booked ourselves a room at a bizarre hotel called Spa Exotic Home. You’d think we’d been forewarned with the name of the place, but that passed us by. When we showed up at our Pai digs, we found our little, wooden bungalow was equipped with its own ‘spa.’ Our bathroom had a huge, stone tub shooting out hot, sulfur water that reeked of rotten eggs. To elevate the mood, there were paintings of water nymphs hung all over the walls of our room. If that wasn’t enough, there was a u-shaped, hot spring pool just outside our front door. The only thing rivaling the steamy waters were the Kama Sutra sculptures surrounding the pool.
Our time in Pai will best be remembered for tooting around on a moped. Because our hotel was so far outside of town, renting a moped was essential. Once we hopped on, we realized we’d been missing out on this quintessential Southeast Asian experience. With Ryan at the wheel, we whizzed around town like a local. Check out the video below of my first and only attempt at driving the moped.
There is something about the Thai way that leaves you wanting more. Maybe it’s the food, the smiles and warm welcome we received. Maybe it’s the abundant sunshine, natural beauty and mix of Western amenities and rich culture. Perhaps it’s a mix of all of this. Whatever it was, Thailand was beginning to wrap us around her finger and our adventures in northern Thailand only whet our appetite for more.