In just the week that I’d been away from Chiang Mai, it seemed to have gotten a massive increase in it’s mosquito population. Especially in the bathrooms.
I ended up walking around looking like I must have had some awful rash with the way I kept scratching my backside, because EVERY SINGLE TIME I went to use the toilet I’d gain a whole new collection of bites.
Apart from the mosquitoes, there were a few other things different on my second visit to Chiang Mai, chief amongst them being that I now had a travel partner: my friend Bea, who’d come up from Australia to visit me for three weeks.
I don’t usually travel with people, unless they’re people who I’ve met travelling who I’ve decided to go to an onward destination with but still without any obligations to or expectations from each other.
I travel because I love the sense of freedom it gives me, and I love doing whatever I feel like and getting caught up in the moment. It’s easier when travelling alone to meet interesting people and have unusual experiences, and especially to push yourself to step out of your comfort zone. It’s challenging, and it forces you to be independent because you’re completely responsible for yourself.
So in short, it was very different travelling with Bea – who’s pretty much the opposite of me in every way. We tended to argue a fair bit and would get very snippy with each other sometimes, and I don’t think I’ll go travelling with anyone again unless they have the same interests, attitude to travelling and endurance as I do. Having said that, there were also a lot of upsides, including that we could share twin private rooms (goodbye dorms!) and make elaborate plans. And we made lots of plans….
ACTIVITY ONE: Sunday Night Markets
What’s the first thing you want to do after a 12 hour flight from Sydney to Chiang Mai? Indulge in Thai Street Food! Or at least, that’s what I assumed Bea would want, so as soon as she’d gotten to the hostel and freshened up, we headed out to the Chiang Mai Sunday Markets.
You know all those travel shows on TV, in which they stroll through those busy Asian markets with food and handicrafts everywhere and it looks absolutely amazing? That’s what this was like.
Thailand’s got lots of markets, and they’re usually full of tourist bait and cheap imitations of more or less every big brand ever made. The Sunday markets are a little different though, because they’re more about the handicrafts of the Northern Thai people, so they’re full of beautiful silk scarves and carved wood and – my favourite – pretty little lanterns all lit up for show. And of course there’s the fish spas, where – mainly Western – customers sit on rows of plastic seats with their feet in tubs of baby Garra Rufa, who nibble away at their dead skin.
The food is the other highlight. This was the best street food – in fact, the best food full stop – I’d found anywhere in Thailand. There were little barbecues everywhere, with skewers of octopus and chicken and bacon wrapped enoki mushrooms, which they’d serve you with this fresh green chilli sauce that tasted like heaven. They had fresh takoyaki, pulled straight out of the moulds and into your plate.
The noodles were the most impressive – as soon as you ordered, the old lady would quickly put some dried noodles into her pot of boiling water, and while that was getting cooked she’d be deftly throwing handfuls of greens, lime, fish balls and onion onto the plate before pulling the noodles out, adding them to the top with some sauce and sprinkling crushed peanuts over the whole lot and handing it over. Can’t get fresher than that.
We were especially lucky to also run across some hip hop showcase that day where they had dance crews in from around the world, popping and locking up on stage. I’ve never seen professional hip hop dancers live and it was amazing. They’re so synchronized and so bad ass – not what I was expecting to come across in comparatively rural northern Thailand.
ACTIVITY TWO: Ziplining with Skyline Adventure:
I don’t know who came up with the idea of ziplining, but experiencing the forest from the canopy level while you get to fly around with the wind whipping through your hair is a brilliant idea.
Plus the company we went with had a buffet lunch included in the package. PRO TIP: if I could do this again, I would have done the morning session of ziplining, so I could eat lunch after, instead of before. As it was we didn’t eat much because ziplining with a full stomach sounds like a recipe for trouble. And by trouble I mean throwing up all over forest.
The company was great – all the equipment was of really good quality and they kitted us up with everything: gloves, helmet, hair net, a little bag that clipped on to our harness with a water bottle inside, and free lockers to store our valuables. Not to mention that our guides were hilarious. That bit was good.
The bit that wasn’t so good? We were with a bus load of very stereotypical Chinese tourists. They took a bajillion selfies- which, you know, is annoying but not such a big deal – but they were also insanely scared of ziplining. And there were a lot of them.
I understand being scared of a lot of things and I’m usually sympathetic. But it’s a zipline, where you literally don’t have to do anything, and you’re always attached to a harness. There is zero chance of injury or of anything going wrong. And, fine, be scared the first time. Or even the first ten times. But surely after that you should get a little bit more comfortable?
Not my group. Each time it was their turn, they’d freak out, take a few minutes to calm themselves, then reluctantly attach on to the zipline, scream until they got to the other end, fall to the ground, and wait for the guide to clip them off. It took an AGE!! There’s nothing to dampen your enthusiasm for doing something than having to wait half an hour each time for your turn – especially when that something gets over in about ten seconds.
And even though some of them could speak English, they just didn’t talk to us. Whenever I’m in a group of predominantly English speaking people, I always make an effort to include the non-English speakers, but the young Chinese girls were just kind of snotty. That made the waiting worse.
The other thing they don’t tell you is how much it hurts your thighs after a while. There were just a few too many ziplines. They start with heaps of really short ones before they get to the longer ones – and while the long ones are very cool, the short ones are over in about 4 seconds and quickly become routine. If I could do it again I’d take a package with less ziplines and just skip the short ones.
At the very last zipline they ask you if you want to have the harness strapped on backwards, which lets you look like superman. It’s a trap. The harness just digs into your thighs and – much worse than that – in between your legs. I can’t stress enough just how painful this was. I’m a girl, and I was worried that it would cause some permanent damage down there. I don’t know how any of the guys managed it.
On the whole, it was a very mixed experience – I’d still recommend it, but only if you can call up and get them to guarantee that you’ll have a small group (apparently they usually only have 8 people with 3 guides, so I’m not sure why ours was double that size), and I’d definitely go for the smaller package.
ACTIVITY THREE: Doi Saket
I’d had the brilliant idea of bicycling to Doi Saket without realising that it was 19km away – which was a problem because Bea doesn’t really do bicycling. We did manage to bicycle all the way to Central Festival Mall – 5.7km away – before heading back, leaving our bikes at Warorot Markets with a sweet old man promising to look after them, and catching a songthaew instead.
Doi Saket is a quaint little town with nary a tourist in sight, which was a lovely change from Chiang Mai. We got rose apples and coconuts at the markets and ate them sitting in the shade by the river, before deciding to tackle the temple.
Wat Prathat Doi Saket is very much like the more famous Doi Suthep, but a little smaller and – on a weekday – peaceful and empty. I’m not a fan of the big temples, crowded with people taking photos and full of gaudy decorations. Doi Saket, however, was perfect. It had a long naga staircase out the front, beautiful statues inside the courtyard, and it was utterly tranquil. You could lose yourself there for a long time, and I would have been quite happy to spend a few hours there, writing and meditating.
We made the mistake of leaving the temple by one of the side exits, which led us down a very long windy road and left us at a fork where neither path looked like it would lead back to the main part of town.
We ended up walking for ages through really rural countryside as the sun went down, unsure if we were going the right way and worried about getting stuck here for the night – where nobody speaks English and there aren’t any hotels. Then when we finally did get back, there weren’t any songthaews going back to Chiang Mai for aaaages.
But when one finally did arrive and took us back to Warorot Markets, there was our sweet little old man, still watching our bikes! All the stalls had closed and everyone else had gone home but he’d stayed there to make sure nobody stole them. What an absolute sweetheart! This is the other thing that I adore about travelling – people are constantly surprising me with how nice they are, and you really get to experience some of the best of humanity.
ACTIVITY FOUR: Cooking Course at Thai Secret Cooking School
We did the whole day course at Thai Secret Cooking School, and it was so much better than I ever expected. It’s run by this couple, Mae, who’s a Northern Thai woman, and her American husband Jason.
Mae was an absolute font of knowledge when it came to Thai Cookery. She took us to a market to start off with, and taught us about various Thai ingredients and how to use them – and about what we could use as substitutes when we went home.
We had a bit of an incident at one point while Mae was showing us ant eggs – a Thai delicacy – and one of the Americans just reached out, grabbed some, and put it in his mouth. The lady who owned the stall was understandably ticked off, since they’re fairly expensive – they’re from fire ants, so you can imagine that they’re painful to collect – and apparently some people have sever allergic reactions when they eat the eggs raw.
Mae bought some eggs off her to calm her down, then bought us these little sweet rice pancake things with corn and onion in them (who would have thought corn and onion could be used in dessert?!) to munch on till we got to the cooking school.
The cooking school’s out in the countryside, so that the air is clean and fresh and the only sounds you hear are birdsong, which was incredibly soothing after the incessant honking and yelling of Chiang Mai.
They’ve got a huge vegetable garden too, and we got to pick the herbs and vegetables we were going to be using that day right off the stem, before heading to our individual kitchen stations.
For the full day course you get to choose an appetizer, Thai soup, stir fry, curry paste, curry, and a dessert. I chose Thai Beef Salad (the first I’d had in Thailand because while they’re ubiquitous in Sydney, they’re impossible to find in Thailand), chicken in coconut milk soup, holy basil stir fry, yellow curry paste, yellow currry, and mango sticky rice.
The food was amazing. Mae would let us come pick up the ingredients, but would let us add things in according to taste, so that we could make it tangier/spicier/sweeter as we liked. By the time I’d eaten my Thai beef salad and chicken soup, I was stuffed. But everything tasted so good that I couldn’t stop eating!
We made the curry paste from scratch, with her telling us which spices to put in and how much, and we had to grind them all together the traditional way in a mortar and pestle – which, for the record, takes an age and really works your arms! It was the best yellow curry I’d ever tasted though, so the effort was very much worth it.
She also cooked up those ant eggs that she’d bought, and let us try them. It was probably the most unusual thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, and the texture was certainly interesting but I can’t say I was overly fond of the taste. At least I can tick ‘eat ant eggs’ off my bucket list though.
The mango stick rice was my favourite. We had to actually cut open a coconut then grate the inside over this contraption that was like a stool with a serrated curved blade on it. You’d sit on the stool and move the coconut back and forth over the blade to grate it up – which again, worked your arms, and also really tested your patience. Seriously, forget wax on wax off, the karate kid should have been told to grate coconut on one of these.
But freshly made coconut cream, like this, tastes about a bajillion times better than the canned stuff – she gave us some from a can so we could taste and compare. The mango sticky rice we made tasted absolutely heavenly – so much better than the stuff from the street – and I’d thought that was good!
All this time they’d been taking photos of us, which I’d just assumed they’d put on their Facebook page or website. The actual reason was much cooler – when we finished, they presented each of us with a cookbook with all of the day’s recipes – all personalised with photos of us!
Mae and Jason were great, they made it so much fun and you didn’t feel like it was a business transaction at all, they were so hospitable. They took us over to the temple at the end, where we played with this adorable little puppy that then got obsessed with trying to eat my pants and that I had to end up running away from. Before we left, we had to remind them that we hadn’t yet paid – they’d completely forgotten to take our money. It was exactly the kind of experience I’d been looking for – 10/10 would recommend.
ACTIVITY FIVE: Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution
Unlike Bangkok, where super short shorts are the norm, everyone’s got the latest smartphone and the train system is perfect, Chiang Mai is kind of rural, with a lot less technology, less developed, and far more conservative.
So it may come as a little bit of a surprise that they’ve got a really progressive women’s prison there – the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution. Instead of just keeping the inmates locked up, they’ve got a massage parlour, handicrafts shop and restaurant here that the women work in.
We’d heard great things about the massages, but I’d just had one and Bea doesn’t like them, so we decided to eat in the restaurant instead. It’s only a fraction more expensive than street food (60 baht for a green curry, and 20 for steamed rice – just over $3) the quality of the meals is pretty great, and it looks just like any other northern Thai restaurant you might eat at, just with a guard at the door.
The way it works is that the inmates – all of whom, by the way, are only in there for minor crimes – are taught massage, cookery and English to work here, so that they leave with both skills and experience, and everything that they earn is actually given to them when they’re released. It’s a brilliant idea because it’s a much more successful system of rehabilitation and a nicer alternative to just keeping them locked up all the time. If only more prisons had programs like this!
Aoi Garden Guest House
The final note I have to end this post with is about our accommodation, Aoi Garden Guest House. This was one of the loveliest places I’d seen in Thailand, where apart from the rooms being very cute and the fact that they had a bar in a garden with hammocks and pagodas, the staff would also remember your names and become your friends. We hired our bikes from here for just 50 baht/day ($2!), had a twin private room for just $14/night, and stored our bags here – for free – when we went off trekking.
My favourite memory is of one of the guys offering to take me and Bea to the local markets one night on his motorbike. We were three to a seat, he handed me a selfie stick and commanded me to take photos, and then he drove like a maniac so that all the photos were basically of me and Bea looking absolutely terrified. Good times.