As much as there is to do in Chiang Mai, it’s the surrounding landscape that gives it its gold star. There are waterfalls, mountains, villages, treks, zip lines ams all manner of natural wonders. Many people do the three hour drive to Pai, or to Chiang Rai like we did, but there’s plenty of it in good old Chiang Mai.
As infamous as they are in South East Asia, elephants are something that that should be respected, appreciated and enjoyed -in that order. We went for my birthday treat and it was wonderful. I’m stating the obvious but they are gargantuan animals. When they come close to you, the sheer mass of them is hard to comprehend (and these are Asian elephants, female ones!). We fed them bananas and bamboo first. Their trunks come out sniffing and searching for food while they boom towards you. It’s terrifying but fun and exhilarating. At our height, their eyes are right on you, your face is with their face and you can say a friendly hello through the unspoken animal to animal language. Their skin is so thick that you wouldn’t think they could feel the stroking, but they do of course.
We then bathed them in mud, while the carers threw mud at us. It got messy very quickly but we lost all the nervousness and felt comfortable with the elephants. There were seven of them in the group, including a four year old, a two year old, and an expectant mother. The only male was the two year old called naughty boy. He lived up to his reputation, running in circles around so and causing mischief. We washed in the river and had some water fight fun. It was a day to remember, leaving me awestruck, joyful and humbled.
There are lots of opportunities to see elephants in Chaing Mai, but you have to be careful what you’re signing up for. Elephant riding is wrong but is still widespread in Thailand. We found a great company called Elephant Jungle Sancury that rehabilitates elephants that have worked in logging or riding. Here they care for them and give them a kind of freedom.
The northern provinces of Thailand are rich in greenery and wildlife. The mountains form part of a mountain range that spreads through Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Vietnam and up. From Chiang Mai, you can get sweaty in the outdoors, and feel like a proper explorer.
After a trek in Chiang Rai, we were keen to do another one in Chiang Mai. We found one organised by our hostel, one full day including lunch. It’s not probably impossible to organise by yourself, but unless you’re Sir David Attenborough, I wouldn’t advise it. We started a sign up sheet and put it on the notice board. By the next morning, there was just one other name on it, so we became a cosy group of three trekkers, one guide and one local coming along for the ride.
The walk this time was more forest than jungle. Instead of wet dense foliage, we had a canopy of tall trees, and a few ankle grazers. It was a quick walk through some rice paddies before we got to the mountain, a little wave from the locals and a curious buffalo sent us on our way. A long walk through the stunning forests, the trek wasn’t strenuous but was steady. For the most part, I was concentrating on not falling on my arse, but when you look up it really is stunning. Banana, bamboo, teak and pineapple and things I don’t know the name of grow en masse. We saw a plant that you could make into a catapult, and another that you could split and blow bubbles through! Some of the leaves were just gorgeous. At lunch, we had hot fried rice and pineapple, then a dip in a water fall. The pool at the bottom was only small, but with three of us it didn’t matter. Waterfalls in the jungle are like a real life mirage; a tranquil cool pool surrounded by beautiful green trees.
We continued for another hour or so, chatting away and bubbling along. Then we reached a village, where we were dodging chickens, dogs and piglets. Sweatty again, the trek ended in a trip to the ‘Grand Canyon’ where the fear replaced everything else.
The treks may seem expensive but if you can squeeze it into your budget them do. Sometimes I weight up the price of an experience with the price of a glass of wine, and realise I don’t like the analogy, so mentally sacrifice something else. The trek was worth it. There are hundreds of trek opportunities in Chiang Mai, enough to find just what you’re looking for.
For a simpler way to get outdoors, grab a bike and go. We hired a moped for 250baht, just under £6. For the brave, there are big national parks to ride around. For the not so confident, there are waterfalls nearby, which offer a little walk and a fresh dip. Mae Sa Waterfalls took us under an hour to get to, and were a cheap way to see the Northern greenery.
Little known to many adventurers in Chiang Mai, but on the rise, is the Grand Canyon. It’s an old quarry filled with fresh water that forms a sort of canyon. A place for locals to cool off, it is now shared by visitors keen to join in the fun. The jump-and yes you have to jump- is about 10metres from the edge to the water. The water itself is an unknown depth, locals say 30-40metres, so you’re all safe there. I lied, you can walk round and slide in but the jump is the thing to do and the whole reason you’re there. Have a little thrill and do it.