One of the most welcoming places I have travelled to throughout South East Asia is the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. It exudes an unparalleled atmosphere which is nothing short of charming.
I planned to arrive in Chiang Mai by way of overnight train from Bangkok and I could not have been more pleased with my choice. Watching Thailand fly past the small window of my cabin as the night settled in was unforgettable, I travelled to Chiang Mai twice in 2016 and both times I arrived by train.
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, but upon arrival I felt at ease, the ‘big city rush' of Bangkok doesn't reach this far north. In the centre of Chiang Mai lies the Old Town which is almost a perfect square. This small area houses most hostels and is the number one tourist destination in the city, there was an abundance of restaurants and temples within walking distance of all my hostel in the Old Town, which was extremely convenient.
I was fortunate enough to experience 2 events in Chiang Mai, the first was the 2016 New Years celebrations, lanterns erupted from the streets of the Old Town in a beautiful display of light and joy. The countdown began and as I cheered ‘Happy New Year!' along with the rest of Thailand, the sky lit up with a breathtaking firework show which left me gazing upwards in awe as the lanterns danced their way between the colourful explosions. The second, far more exciting event was Songkran, the Thai New Year which takes place on the 13th April, this time, the festival is at its peak during the day as hundreds of people swarm out onto the streets in the world's largest water fight. Adults and children alike armed to the teeth with water pistols and buckets of icy water run through the crowds drenching anyone and everyone in their path.
The street food around the Old Town is cheap and delicious. After spending a couple days tentatively trying out the safe looking dishes, I found myself at the Sunday Night Market with the urge to try something new, so I walked up to a stall and pointed at the first Thai word on the menu without the slightest clue of what it might be. She handed me a container and I took my first cautious spoonful of massaman curry, I couldn't believe how perfectly the flavours mingled, the spicy curry swirling with the coconut milk, the soft potatoes melting in my mouth with a hint of mint. I needed to have more, so naturally my next thought was ‘How can I learn to make this?'. I searched online a little and came across a cooking course which I could complete in 1 day, so I signed up and learnt how to make 7 different Thai dishes.
Although I certainly experienced a lot in Chiang Mai, the highlight of my time there was almost definitely my visit to The Elephant Nature Park, spending time with these majestic animals surrounded by the beautiful hills of Thailand is an experience that I will hold with me forever. I am a big supporter of ethical tourism, and since elephants are so terribly mistreated in South East Asia, I chose to visit Elephant Nature Park because they are one of the only reliable projects that save mistreated elephants, I had the chance to walk alongside an elephant, feed it and bathe with it in the river, there is no riding, and the guides never forced the elephants to go anywhere or do anything if they didn't want to, it was the perfect place to spend a wonderful day getting closer to these amazing animals.
Chiang Mai is one of the most interesting and culturally diverse cities that I've had the fortune of visiting in South East Asia, it's the perfect place for a breather from the chaos of Bangkok, a place where you can sit quietly and enjoy the serene beauty of a temple, or participate in the world's largest water fight, there is nowhere like it on earth.