Heading north, instead of using another bus we went with an overnight train which as per normal left an hour late; the driver was probably away having his dinner, a wee chat or a sleep. We got on board and headed to our bunks, which were located on the aisle behind a little curtain. The bed was reasonably comfy but oh so noisy, I slept with my headphones in, attempting to block it out.
Arriving in Chiang Mai, we started the crawl around hotels and guesthouse in the old quarter, a large area surrounded by a river looking for somewhere to stay, after being turned away from quite a few which were full and seeing some grim looking place we picked a decent looking hotel with a pool, result. Good base for a few nights eating and drinking, one night was particularly messy with a strong glass of margarita turning to a jug, followed by another, whoops.
An hour outside of the city lies the Elephant Nature Park sanctuary, a fantastic place that is home to 37 rescued elephants, along with hundreds of dogs and cats – kept in separate areas. We initially looked in to volunteering for a week but they were full so we went with a one day visit. At £55 each it’s not a cheap day out but soon enough you realise the massive costs this facility faces.
Arriving in the morning we were in awe at the elephants wandering around so close. Taking a basket we headed over and started to feed them, placing large chunks of food in the trunks and watching them happily munching away. Each elephant has its own mahout (handler) who is a continuous companion for the animal, sort of a big brother.
Throughout the day we had the chance to go around seeing them up close, going in to the river to help wash them before once again feeding, they eat 10% of their body weight each day. It’s a massive operation to source, prepare and feed them.
After lunch we were told there is a cinema room showing a national geographic film on Thailand’s Elephants but were warned the last 10 minutes are hard to watch. It was really interesting, explaining that elephants are still classed as cattle and have no protection. Since the logging industry has ceased (due to a ban) they are no longer needed to pull logs and are abandoned or sold to the tourist trades. I’ve always been against the idea of the elephant tourist rides but looking at it another way, what other option is there for the locals to make money to support them? Tricky.
The film went on to show the utterly horrific method the use to break a baby elephant’s spirit, basically holding it in a tiny cage for three days whilst beating and torturing it with spikes, no food, water or sleep. Once the elephant can take no more, it becomes submissive to to it’s owner. Heartbreaking to watch, I can’t get my head around how the crew felt filming it.
Heading further north, we arrived in Pai, a smaller charming town with a laid back atmosphere. Checking in to a nice set of bungalows we stumbled across, borrowing their bikes we cycled the 7k to the hot springs, normally this would be easy enough but combining bikes that were falling apart, hills and hot hot sun, it was a fair wee challenge. Arriving at the springs we had the option of various pools, starting at 34c they rose up to 38c, I managed to sit in 37c but found the higher one just far too burny!
After a few days in Pai, we started to head back south. There isn’t an easy way to get around Thailand as everything seems to head through Bangkok, realising this we decided to stop once again in Chiang Mai as there was more to see and do.
Mountain Biking and White Water Rafting are two big things around here, being dry season rafting was not an option (wouldn’t get very far) so downhill Mountain Biking was the best option. I contacted a company offering rides asking for an intermediate level course to ensure we had some level of challenge. Annie came along but wasn’t as keen on the idea, starting the day off the guide didn’t seem to bother giving out much advise or tutorials until a few people in the group asked/pushed for some guidance, he eventually upped his game. One guy in the group who didn’t speak English came with his girlfriend, she said he was a biker at home and boy it showed, he was right with the guide the whole time throwing himself down the tracks like no tomorrow. On the way down we had various chances to go off the trails and onto single track technical routes, Annie did amazing and warmed up to the idea that it’s a lot of fun, as the single tracks got harder the numbers dropped, I kept pushing but when he started describing them as “hard”, I happily took a rain check and went around as I like my skin attached to my body and not scraped along a tree. One final single track run, the leaders scooted off just out of sight, I was navigating the path well (I thought) with Annie not far behind. Approaching the end with the riders stopped just ahead on the road I took what I thought was the correct route, to the right and suddenly off a larger than expected ledge. Landing to see the others chuckling, we noticed Annie was battering down the exact same route, “LEFT!” everyone shouted but it didn’t work, she went right and off the ledge, landing a bit rough but stayed on the bike fine! Fantastic fun, came away feeling we had pushed our level up a notch.
North Thailand, great fun but now the beach is calling.