Lions and tigers and bears, oh Chiang Mai!

Alright, Ok, I was lying about the lions. But Northern Thailand is well known for its tigers and sun bears, and while many of these tigers are now in captivity and heavily drugged for the stereotypical tourist photo opportunities, it is still an unnerving experience to prance around the Thai jungle and its remote villages in the knowledge that deadly tigers are occasionally spotted here in the wild.

A view over Chiang Mai
A view over Chiang Mai

About an hours flight from Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the most important city in the north of Thailand and receives its fair share of backpackers all year round, even during the wet season. While not as renowned for its partying as the beach towns of the south, Chiang Mai nonetheless caters for the young crowd with bars and clubs as well as more traditional tourist attractions such as jungle treks and white water rafting, as well as containing many ancient temples at which to marvel.

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Being Thailand, you won’t be on your own here in Chiang Mai. People of all ages (but I found more young people than adults) will be sharing hostels and guesthouses, and competing for tuktuk rides to the nearest market! The cost of living in Chiang Mai is so cheap, that it’s easy to see why so many backpackers make this place their home (or at least visit for a little while) when they’re travelling in Thailand.

Chiang Mai's Loy Krathong festival
Chiang Mai’s Loy Krathong festival

The traditional Chiang Mai festival is called Loy Krathong (Festival of Lights). This is a festival celebrated annually throughout Thailand (and Laos, and a few states in Malaysia). The name could be translated as “to float a basket”, and comes from the tradition of making buoyant (krathong) decorated baskets, which are then floated on a river. Loi Krathong takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar; hence, the exact date of the festival changes every year. In 2016, it will occur on November 15!

The Mae Ping River
The Mae Ping River
Everywhere you look you can see signs of rural Thailand!
Everywhere you look you can see signs of rural Thailand!
Bamboo rafting is fun - especially in the trail of elephants!
Bamboo rafting is fun – especially in the trail of elephants!

Many visitors to Chiang Mai will enjoy an elephant ride through the jungle and across ravines and rivers. This was a fantastic experience from a usually docile creature, and I would recommend this to everybody – so long as you can use your common sense to determine whether these elephants are being kept in a healthy environment. If they aren’t, don’t pay, but if they are, then enjoy yourself and get as many photos as you can, as it’s not something you can do every day of the week back home!

The Emerald Buddha (and Golden cousins!) in Wat Phra Thet Doi Suthep
The Emerald Buddha (and Golden cousins!) in Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Chedi Luang
Wat Umong
Wat Umong

While not as spectacular as some of the temples in neighbouring Myanmar or Cambodia, Chiang Mai has its fair share of cool Buddhist temples and monasteries to visit. When you remember that Chiang Mai was once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, you must agree that a trip to the northern part of Thailand would not be complete without taking in the sights at a few of these temples. The most spectacular temple here is unquestionably the 14th century Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which remains to this day a working Buddhist monastery and houses a copy of the Emerald Buddha (the real one sits in Bangkok’s Grand Palace). Wat Chedi Luang, which was damaged beyond repair by an earthquake in the 16th century, and the dark and mysterious Wat Umong are also highlights of Chiang Mai. Please check my following post for some other insights into Chiang Mai’s best temples.

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Friendly Thai vendors at one of Chiang Mai’s night markets
Sai Ua
Sai Ua
Kaeng Pa
Kaeng Pa

Food in Chiang Mai is well-known, as the city is the culinary centre of Thailand. Even more so than Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a mecca for local Thai dishes and sumptuous (and cheap!) street food. The best locations for street food are Chiang Mai Gate, Chiang Pheuak Gate, and the Saturday Walking Street. It is there where you will find the tastiest and freshest dishes (make sure you try the Kaeng Pa “Jungle Curry”, the Sai Ua “Chiang Mai Sausages, and the Som Tam “Papaya Salad”), and you may also get the chance to sit down and enjoy it with the locals – so brush up on that Thai language, won’t you!

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10 thoughts on “Lions and tigers and bears, oh Chiang Mai!

  1. Chiang Mai looks beautiful!

    And they are famous for the nature beauty right?

    When I was in Thailand end of last year, I stood at the train ticket counter, thinking of whether to buy a ticket to Nong Khai and subsequently enter Laos or a train to Chiang Mai.

    Ended up, I chose Nong Khai. So I have never been to Chiang Mai.. hehe

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  2. Hey! Thanks so much for the pingback to our blog! Much appreciated! 🙂 We’re actually proudly South African, and just live in Germany! 😉 You should DEFINITELY go shark cage diving in South Africa when you’re there! 🙂

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    1. Thanks for dropping by! Ok, I will edit my words and give you your correct nationality! 😉 I hope to visit Cape Town later this year, really looking forward to it! Must also get back to Thailand soon!

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  3. Those photos from Mae Sa Elephant Camp, aren’t they? A place notorious for its abuse of elephants and other animals (such as the oxen which are used to pull the carts on the safari).

    Their elephants are not well-cared for. The camp boasts that the elephants get fed twice a day – to put it into context, imagine someone giving you a couple of cookies in the morning and in the evening, and that’s all you had to eat all day, every day. Elephants need to constantly graze – they need around 300kg of food a day!

    What that second image shows is abuse, plain and simple. Elephants’ spines are very weak – the only safe way to ride an elephant is one person on its neck, as in the first photo. And actually even then, it’s not ideal for people to be riding elephants. Those mahouts have bullhooks – essentially, pickaxes – and the elephants have chains around their necks. The chains are to keep the elephants confined to tiny spaces when the public are not around.
    That second photo is heartbreaking.

    Mae Sa Elephant Camp, along with many others here in Chiang Mai (and all over Thailand) makes their elephants perform circus tricks, do painting, play ball sports – do you have any idea of what those animals suffer in order to get them to do those things?

    Here’s just a small glimpse into what goes on here in Thailand. I warn you, it’s upsetting.

    If you’re going to encourage your readers to go to see elephants in Chiang Mai (and why would you not? Elephants are amazing animals!) then please publicise the responsible and ethical places such as Elephant Nature Park.

    Thanks!

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