We reached Chiang Mai from Bangkok Mo Chit Bus station, on an overnight bus arriving by sunrise. This trip was one of the biggest positive surprises of our trip, in terms of unexpected travel comfort. We had purchased our tickets in one of the most tiny ticket booths outside Mo Chit bus station – which is a huge an chaotic place with hundreds of tickets sellers around – one of the booths with hardly any word written in Latin letters, apart the name of the destination, Chiang Mai, the one with the lowest ticket fare and a dynamic, noodle soup eating, but ever smiling lady, nodding in answer to all of our questions: ‘Yeeees, sleeper buuus, VIP buuus!’. So in our minds we already came into terms with another night on a clamp rattle rack.
But, as so many times before, we were again told: don’t expect anything in Thailand, it’s going to be different anyways. So was the bus we were travelling with, a double decker, AC cooled, real VIP bus with large seats, loads of leg space (even for European leg length) and a neatly dressed, of course ever smiling stewardess, who first of all served us water and biscuits. And as the cherry on the cake, the bus stopped in the middle of the night at a highway restaurant to serve a free dinner. Not the thing you are particularly longing for at one o’clock in the morning, but still a very nice service and all Thai people gratefully accepted it, sipping a noodle soup or tom yam before falling asleep again, back on the bus.
So thanks to this surprisingly comfortable trip, we arrived more or less well-rested to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city in the deep North West of the country, and could start exploring it right away. Unlike Bangkok, Chiang Mai had a very laid back ambiance, few traffic and a provincial charm. The old city center, a square surrounded by a small moat, is not very large and easy explorable by foot. One of its main attractions are its uncountable temples, – old, new, plain, colorful, – which seem to grow like mushrooms behind each and every street corner. From one of them we were hearing loud music accompanying the prayers of the monks, so we curiously stepped in and were immediately welcome by a crowd of Thai women waving to us:’Come, come! Thai food, all you can eat, try something, is free!’.
The temple had been destroyed by a fire some years before and was celebrating it re inauguration that day, with numerous stalls serving freshly prepared soup, Thai omelet, Thai ice tea, spring rolls, deserts… So obviously, we tried as much as we could in the Chiang Mai noon heat and earned bouquet of happy smiles with each ‘Hmmmm, very tasty food!’
Besides the city itself, Chiang Mai is famous for its beautiful mountainous surroundings, and one emblematic animal in it: the elephant, and oviously we didn’t want our friends to miss the experience of sitting on the pricky elephant’s neck. Contrary to our first elephant ride in Laos last year, this time we preferred to choose a more ecotourism oriented tour, with an elephant camp run by an elephant breeding and training association. The tour consisted in a half day mini mahout training, comprehending and elephant ride, elephant feeding and elephant bathing.
First step before mounting the elephant: learning some commands to lead him and – very important part – indicate you reward him with some banana if he follows your lead. So we learned how to tell the elephant to move forward – shout Hue-Hue and tickle his ears with both feet, – turn left and right, – shout Kuit-Kuit and tickle with the opposite foot, respectively, – to stop, – How-How, – to turn backwards, – Toy, Toy!, – and the most essential command, how to tell him to lift his trunk to receive the rewarding food, – Bon, Bon!
Obviously, the moving part was in the end mostly triggered by the mahout walking next to us, but the Bon, Bon! part turned out to work quite well immediately. After practicing our mahout abilities for some rounds we set off to a little promenade through the forest, crossing the river and riding through the hills. Sitting on an a bare elephant back or neck is a quite bumpy ride and ours additionally turned out to be a little cross-grained, or annoyed by carrying around tourists each and every day, so that every now and then it stopped and then did little hoppers.
After the sweaty ride through the sun, both the elephants and us were grateful about the refreshing water in the river, where we bathed and scrubbed our new grey friends as if they had been rolling in the mud for hours. The elephants were just lying in the river bed and let us have our fling, only snuffling and rolling their eyes from time to time, as if we were merely another bunch excited mosquitoes buzzing around them. A bunch of different mosquitoes every day.
After a very tasty lunch under a palm leave roof and after saying goodbye to our banana chewing friends, we went on towards a place where the river grew larger for doing so-called bamboo-rafting. Before getting on the raft, we had no idea what this was about, it was included in the tour package and sounded kind of fun. In the end, the raft was nothing moe than six five meter long bamboo trunks, bond together by cut tyre ropes and the rafting consisted in sitting on the bond up trunks and being navigated through the shallow river waters, by yourself or by a raft skipper (or whatever one would call it).
As the river didn’t carry too much water – it was the end of the dry season – the whole trip through the beautiful landscape could have been a very relaxing end of our day… but we reckoned without the numerous other rafters, most of them spending the whole sunday on the river – or better said the river bank -, equipped with picnic and large amount of alcoholic drinks, and whose favourite entertainment seemed to be fighting water battles with people on each and every raft passing by, especially those who still seemed to be not completely soppy.
So after we had suffered from sun and heat all day, we ended up freezing when getting off the raft and driving back into Chiang Mai. And exhausted. But this would not prevent us from going out again to have a look at the legendary Sunday night street market, said to be among the largest markets in Asia (!). And we can confirm: it is HUGE, streets after streets and backyards and squares full of stalls selling handicrafts, textiles, food, drinks…walking the whole market would take you the whole night, or perhaps even longer.
Nowadays, the market seems to be mainly made for tourists, though, which obviously gives incentive for offering all crazy kind of products and services. Similar to India, competition is fierce here, too, so the more attention you attract, the better for your business. So we ran into a stall selling all kind of fried insects, per weight, and of course the Chileans could not walk by without experiencing their taste. So Caro had a silkworm – crunchy and with a light chicken taste – and Javier and Israel a big cricket – also crunchy, but with a nut-like taste. Javier actually liked it so much that he also had a grasshopper as second course.