Thailand, such a lovely and welcoming country and now a place filled with memories shared with my sister, Julia.
We traveled for a total of 11 days spending time in Chiang Mai, Pattaya, and Bangkok. I will be sharing our journey over the course of two posts, so be sure to check them both out. This is a really long post! Our time in Chiang Mai was jam packed with incredible experiences. I’ve linked to all of the places I mention at the bottom if you want to skip ahead.
Our trip began with a 13 hour flight from Detroit to Seoul, South Korea. With only a 1.5 hour layover and uncertainly about customs we were nervous we would miss out connecting flight to Bangkok. Fortunately, a rep from Korean Air was there to greet us and we made our flight just in time. The food and service on Korean Air was really impressive! Much better than any American-based airline I’ve flown.
We finally arrived in Bangkok after more than 24 hours of travel at about 11 pm local time. In order to adjust to local time to headed to a small hotel near the airport to spend the night. The next morning we packed up and headed back to the airport to catch our quick 1 hour flight north to Chaing Mai. We had a breakfast of fruit and coffee at the airport, my first food in Thailand!
We flew the local airline Thai Smile, and again I was super impressed. The planes were spotless, and we were even given a lovely little pastry to snack on for the quick flight. We finally arrived in Chiang Mai on Sunday in the late morning. I was so excited to finally experience Thailand! We grabbed a cab to our guest house, The Green Tiger.
I cannot say enough good things about The Green Tiger. It was a bit more pricey than some of the other options, but still very inexpensive and worth every penny. The rooms were large and spacious, with nice showers, and a locked safe. Our room had a balcony overlooking the city and with a view of the mountains. I enjoyed sitting out there to read or write in my travel journal in the morning or late afternoon. The guest house also includes the Reform Kafé and you can dine there even if you’re not a guest.
The Reform Kafé serves an entirely vegetarian and vegan menu, using the freshest ingredients and honoring the predominately vegetarian local cuisine. We were completely smitten with our daily breakfast of muesli or yogurt with fresh fruit and orange juice. The local bananas were smaller and sweeter than we are used to and were insanely good. We wished we had eaten more since we didn’t have them again after heading back south. For breakfast they tend to eat more savory meals, including rice soup with vegetables and ginger, or sautéed vegetables and mushrooms with rice. I could eat their rice and vegetables every day of the week and be so happy.
We had our first and last meals in Chaing Mai at the Reform Kafé, enjoying Koh Soy, the signature curry dish of the area that is made with yellow curry and egg noodles, as well as green curry with rice, curry fried rice, and mushroom stir fry. The also served locally made komucha that we enjoyed each day. Can you tell I loved the food?!
We actually did do some things other than eat in Chiang Mai, including visiting markets and getting massages. We also hired out some motorbikes to go on a day tour, thanks to the Happy Days Shop Website. We were lucky to be in town for the Sunday night market, one of the most popular events in town. The market is huge filling a long street through the center of the Old Town, the walled city in the center of the larger city. We spent several hours strolling through the market eating street food such as coconut popsicles and spicy vermicelli with tofu, shopping for gifts (and ourselves), and taking it all in. The market was really fun way to kick off our trip.
Of course no trip to Thailand is complete without a massage, or several! Massage parlors are on just about every street in the major tourist cities and for just a few dollars US you can get an hour long foot massage or a two-hour traditional Thai massage. After all of our travel, a foot massage was exactly what we needed. We visited one of the Dignity Network locations where the employees are women who were formerly prisoners and who were trained in massage to support their reintegration and contribution to society. They did an amazing job and helped with our sore and swollen legs and feet. We went back later in the week for Thai massage as well. I would highly recommend a stop there when in Chiang Mai.
We slept late on our second full day and spent the rest of the morning exploring the many historic Wats, or temples, that fill Old Town. I especially enjoyed seeing the oldest Wat in Chiang Mai and the variety of architecture displayed. Before entering each temple we removed our shoes and left them outside, we also were sure to dress in pants and with our shoulders and arms covered, the required respectful attire. In one of the temples we donated to place alms in the metal bowls for each of the monks associated with the temple.
After much walking and temple visiting we were hungry again. We struggled to find a cafe recommended in the guide book and ended up somewhere else for Pad Thai, Massaman curry, and mango with sticky rice. It wasn’t until later that we learned that the local dish, Koh Soy, is typically only eaten for lunch in Thailand as it’s a heavier dish viewed as less appropriate for the evening meal. Make sure you get your Koh Soy fix at lunch, it’s such a unique and delicious dish!
The next morning we were ready to see see some elephants, something that brings many people to northern Thailand. We were somewhat familiar with the abuse of elephants in Thailand and had decided to book a trip to the Elephant Nature Park, a center focused on elephant rescue and rehabilitation. One the way there we learned that many elephants are “broken” in their youth and abused for many years at riding parks, in the circus, and in the illegal logging industry. Most of the elephants at the park were females in their 80s or older who had spent their lives working through injury, such as deformed backs and broken hips. It was so incredible to interact with and touch these amazing creatures.
We spent the morning walking around, learning each elephant’s name and story, and feeding them. The few baby elephants at the park loved watermelon and bananas, while the older ladies loved pumpkin. We were surprised to find that during our lunch break we were served a vegetarian feast with a buffet with probably 30 different dishes. Everything was amazing and packed with vegetables and tofu. In the afternoon we spent more time walking around, interacting with the elephants, and watching some of them bathe in the river. We did the short park visit which still took up most of the day, though you can also stay for a more full day or even volunteer and stay for several days. I strongly encourage you to do plenty of research on the treatment of elephants in Thailand when choosing where to visit them.
Our final full day in the city we attended a cooking class at Zab-E-Lee Thai Cooking School in the north part of the old city. We didn’t realize when we booked that it was practically next door to our guest house! A cooking class is a must-do in Thailand and especially in Chiang Mai. We were really impressed with all the people at Zab-E-Lee and had a fun group with a few other young women from Australia. Our day began at the local market where were educated about the ingredients we would be using that day, and they were bought fresh for our cooking.
We learned the galangal, or Thai ginger, cannot be exchanged for the ginger most of us are familiar with, they’re truly two different ingredients. The overall theme of our class was that if you can’t find an ingredient don’t substitute just skip it instead! In my opinion of the dishes we cooked, Thai cooking isn’t overly challenging if you know your way around the kitchen, it’s the sourcing of ingredients that can be tough in other parts of the world.
We each cooked 3 dishes plus a curry paste and were all able to choose our own menu. I made spicy papaya salad, sweet and spicy stir fry with shrimp and eggplant, and yellow curry for Koh Soy. Julia made fried spring rolls, pad Thai, and massaman curry- a peanut curry. As a group we made sweet and coconutty sticky rice with fresh mango. I had never enjoyed the dessert before this trip and fell in love with the simplicity and sweetness.
While I won’t take up more space or time we also enjoyed visiting the Chiang Mai night market, having a massage with a hot herbal compress at a local spa, and traveling up the mountain to visit the huge temple and grounds at See Doi Suthep. A note about going up to the temple, be sure to grab one of the shuttle buses that will wait until they have 10 people to go up and down. They’re convenient and inexpensive compared to very pricey taxi service.
Chiang Mai with my sister was the experience of a lifetime and I’m so glad we chose to visit a place so unique and welcoming.
Links to the places mentioned above: