Northern Thailand is very mountainous and as a result, in the winter, it is a lot cooler. The mountains are more like high, treed hills than the mountains we’re used to in the Canadian Rockies, but it is still a beautiful part of the country. There are a lot of mountain activities available in the area, such as: trekking, climbing, elephant riding, and white water rafting. It rained when we were there, so we weren’t able to do as much as we had hoped.
As the largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a very popular with tourists and expats. The downtown core is filled with hotels, restaurants and coffee shops and the sidewalks are crammed with tourists.
Chaing Mai is a historic city, but has lost many of its ancient buildings. We were able to see a few Wats that had been constructed out of teak and are still in good shape. Teak was often used for construction and if makes for unique architecture.
Monk Chat – At one important site, Wat Phra Singh, monks host ‘monk chat’. They invite tourists in to ask questions about Buddhism and their life as monks. In return, they are able to practice their English. We thought this would be very popular, but when we arrived there were no other tourists. We spent about 30 minutes speaking with 2 monks who are studying at university. It was interesting to learn about their lives. Their day begins at 5 am with a mantra chanting ceremony. Then they go in to the city to collect food donations. This food collectively feeds the monastery for their 2 meals of the day; breakfast and lunch. They do not eat supper. Then in the afternoon, those monks still in university have classes. In the evening there is another chanting ceremony and either free time or school work. They also spoke about Buddhism. The most important principle for a monk is mindfulness. Being mindful of your actions and their consequences on you and others. The five tenets that all Buddhists should obey are: not to cause harm to another person, never steal, never lie or gossip, not partake in inappropriate sexual activity, and not to take alcohol or drugs. We really enjoyed learning first hand about the daily life of a monk.
Wat Phra That – Outside of Chiang Mai is a very important and incredibly opulent temple, Wat Phra That. It is at the top of a hill, Doi Suthep. There is a very winding road to the Wat, and our ride was on a Songthaew. These are basically pick up trucks with seats and a roof in the back, and are used communal taxis everywhere in Thailand. It made for a very uncomfortable ride to the temple.
Long Neck Karen Hilltribe – There are many different hilltribes in northern Thailand. The Long Neck Karen hilltribe is one of the most interesting. At the age of 5, girls begin to wear brass coils around their neck. Every year or so another coil is added. An adult women’s coil will weigh approximately 20 lbs. We were so curious what their x-rays would look like, but apparently studies have been done, and the neck is not elongated at all. Instead the collarbone and upper ribs are weighted down and to give the appearance of a longer neck. Over time however, the neck muscles become so stretched and weak, and the collarbone so deformed that they can never take the coils off. We lifted one and couldn’t imagine wearing that on our necks for 5 minutes, and they wear it for years. There are different theories on why they are worn, most believe it was to show wealth. Today they are also worn below the knee and above the ankle as jewelry.
Huay Kup Kap – We trekked for 15 minutes on a rough sandy trail though a pretty dense jungle until we arrived at Huay Kup Kap Waterfall. It’s a nice waterfall with a dramatic 25 foot drop into a deep pool. We had a blast sliding down the polished wall of the waterfall. Click here to see it on YouTube.
Elephant Ride – Elephants were an important part of the work force in the north, and there are still wild ones in the jungle. We went on a very touristy, buy really fun elephant ride. The elephant owners sell bananas to feed the elephants, but we already had some, so we fed him our own. We realized later that our elephant was lucky to feast on a much higher quality banana than usual. We were hesitant about riding an elephant, but in the end, we realized it’s no different than riding a horse. And in fact, they are much larger and stronger than horses who are ridden all of the time in North America.
Whitewater Rafting – Whitewater rafting is really popular here. The rapids aren’t as forceful and fast as they were in Borneo, but we rafted over pretty big drops in the river that were very fun. We had one of the most amazing experiences yet while rafting. Ahead of us we saw 2 wild elephants bathing in the river. We calmly floated right past them and they didn’t seem to mind our being there. It was a really awesome experience.
Lantern Festival – We were in Chiang Mai for New Year’s Eve. The Thai calendar follows the Buddhist Era so is 543 years ahead of ours, but they revised theirs so that New Year’s Day is the same. It used to be in April. New Year’s Eve is a big celebration in Thailand and Chiang Mai is a great place to celebrate. We started the evening with our new friends from California at a local pub with a view of the festivities.
Beginning around 7 pm, lit paper lanterns are released from a number of different parks in the city, but the main area was near the Tha Phae Gate. Some lanterns blew in to trees, but since it’s so wet, they didn’t catch fire. We released our lanterns just before midnight. By the end on the night there had been thousands of lanterns released. The sky was spectacular.
150 Km (3 hours by bus) north-west of Chiang Mai is the small mountain town Pai. The highway from Chiang Mai is a winding, narrow road. There are over 770 switchbacks. There were many warnings from other travelers of how bad the road is and how fast the minibus drivers race around the corners. They say that many passengers will get carsick. Either those stories are a few years old or we lucked out with good drivers both to and from Pai. Our drive wasn’t as bad as the reputation, and no one was sick. The town of Pai is a small, laid-back hippie hangout. Its set right in the mountains on the Pai river. The main street is lined with funky coffee shops and good restaurants and is closed to traffic each night to become a huge market walking street.
Lod Cave – An hour outside of Pai is Lod Cave. It’s a massive cave with many different high-ceilinged caverns with elaborate stalactites and stalagmites in every shape possible. You have to enter the cave with a guide who carries a lantern to light the way.
The Nam Lang River runs through the cave and part of our tour was taking a bamboo raft through the cave to another cavern called Coffin Cave. It was a nice, peaceful way to see the cave. At Coffin Cave they discovered parts of teak wooden coffins that are believed to be thousands of years old.
Pai Canyon – This is an interesting rock feature not far from town. The sandstone mountain eroded over years leaving narrow spiny walkways with steep edges. We went at sunset as it’s supposed to be spectacular, but the weather was not cooperating as it was very cloudy.
At the northern edge of Thailand is Chiang Rai. It has some of the most unusual architecture we have seen.
White Temple – White Temple is an old temple that is being restored by a famous local artist, Chalermchai Kositpipat. The temple is definitely an awe-inspiring spectacle. It has intricate details on every inch of the Temple’s exterior. You’re not allowed to take pictures inside which made us curious. But inside, it looks like a normal Thai temple, so no pictures are needed. The grounds around the temple are quite large and more building is still occurring. The artist says he has another 15 + years of work yet to do.
Blue Temple – Blue Temple is a new temple, only opening one year ago. The entire temple is blue and gold, including the colourful interior.
Black House – The third and oddest place is called Black House. It’s the former residence of the famous Chiang Rai artist Thawan Ducahnee. I can only imagine how his mind looked at the world based on his dark wood home with crocodile skulls and skins on the tables and floors, buffalo horned chairs at either end of massive rustic dinner tables, and utensil handles in the shape of penises.
The house is now a museum and includes over 30 buildings. One of the buildings is titled ‘guest house’. It would certainly be an interesting place to be a dinner or overnight guest. In comparing the White Temple and Black House, locals say to go to White Temple is like going to heaven, and going to Black House is like going to hell.
The Golden Triangle – Chiang Rai’s proximity to the northern borders with Myanmar and Laos make this town an ideal spot to explore the “Golden Triangle’. This area was the world’s leading supplier of opium for years, hence the name.
The Opium museum, shows how poppies are grown, harvested, and in detail, explains how opium latex is extracted, including the proper depth of scoring for the best opium. There were even chemistry equations for different drugs. It seemed a little too informative. Hilltribe lore show that opium was used by their ancestors and its dangers were well known then.
Long Neck Karen and Lahu tribes – There are many hilltribes in this area also. We visited another Long Neck Karen village and a Lahu tribe village.