Northern Thailand: Chiang Mai and Pai
In this post I would like to give you an idea about what we have done in Chiang Mai, how we liked it and whether I would recommend doing it to you. In my last post I mentioned that we were going on a hiking trip. And that is what I'll talk about first.
Okay, let me give you an overview of what the trip was supposed to include: As I mentioned before, it was a two day one night trip. We'd go hiking and do a couple of other activities during the day and sleep in a mountain village for the night. Activities should include visiting a cave full of bats and spiders and hiking to the mountain village on the first day. On the second day we were supposed to hike to a waterfall where we could take a swim, go bamboo rafting and visit an elephant camp. The hiking took place about 60 to 70 km north-east (if I'm right) from Chiang Mai, so fairly far from the city. So we got picked up by a van in the morning and met our tour guide "John". He was a Thai who spoke sufficient, if somewhat broken English. But hey, it's like that almost everywhere. Then we drove to the start from where we were to start our trip. I did not measure the time, but it felt like it took a long time. When we arrived, we had lunch first. All meals on the trip were included, but water was not. It was cheap though. If you should do the same thing, avoid those squashy, white bottles though. They are the cheapest, but the water doesn't taste good and I really don't want to know what chemicals dissolve from the plastic into the water. Anyhow, after lunch, we got started!
In the beginning, the weather was good and it was very warm. John pointed out a few plants to eat or smell, like lemongrass, strange small bananas and sugar cane. He also build hats for some of us to wear from some leaves. They made you look like Peter Pan! As always, there were a lot of butterflies around. On the road we found a dead scorpion. A first sign of what was lurking in the bush. But don't worry, we all made it back alive and even without an encounter with wild tigers, elephants or cobras. Yeah, I'm slightly disappointed, too...
Actually, for the most part the hike was not very eventful. At first we wandered through farmland. Sugar cane, bananas, beans and other local crops were growing on the mountainside. Then we entered the actual jungle. Time for another serve of mosquito repellent. It wouldn't be our last. As bad as this may sound, that stuff works, if you got the right one. A tip from our former travel companion Julian: Get the stuff with the pink lids! I can confirm it is very potent, better than other stuff we've tried. You'll see the mosquitoes swarming all around you, but unless you missed a spot or it has worn off (which happens after a few hours), you'll be almost 100% save from bites. But back to the hike. The tracks were really thin sometimes, mostly overgrown with grass and other low growing plants. So you won't know if there's a snake right in front of you and you will not be able to avoid getting up to your knees into the flora. You may want to bring long pants, but I was fine with shorts. But then I don't have any aversions to most crawling insects, which can't be said about every member of our group :D.
We did this in the beginning of October, so it was not exactly dry season yet. Everything was humid, so we got wet. Both by rain and by sweat. So we definitely needed our change of clothes.
After approximately two hours, we reached the bat cave. Everything was extremely slippery, so it was quite difficult to descent to the entrance of the cave. But the cave isn't very deep, at least the part that's accessible. But there are bats alright! I was the first one to enter, and I got to see quite a spectacle of disturbed bats flying around inside the cave. Shadow after shadow appeared in the dim light of our phones torches, and if you looked up you could see them swarming around above you. And yeah, the ground was covered in shit. In some places more, in some places less. The spiders were not very impressive. They just sat at the walls, one next to the other, and did nothing, except when John touched them. Then they'd quickly run away. After a couple of minutes we left the cave. From the wet, humid, dark and slippery bat cave covered in bat poop, we ascended into the wet, humid, foggy, mosquito swarming and slippery rainforest. Much better. From there, the trip continued up the mountainside. Step after step under gigantic bamboo and lianas. And then we cleared the forest to find us back in farmland. These farms belonged to the hill tribes. From what I understood, these people came there from China to settle and to farm the mountains. And it was not so long ago, that they received Thai citizenship. Generally, they speak neither Thai nor English, so for Tourists it is close to impossible to interact with them, except for photo shootings with the local kids. With the strong emphasis on the stay in this village with the locals within the offer of this trekking trip, I found that to be quite a disappointment. Yes, I've been there and I have seen it. But that was it. Everything I learned about them I could have better learned from a book or the Internet. It was really just a place to rest. And rest we did, for a long time. I think it must have been around 4 or 5pm when we arrived there. Dinner was due at 6, and that was the only additional activity for the day. Except for maybe a lightbulb, there is no electricity available and the Internet reception was very poor. Not much to do with the constant rain that had caught us during the last half hour of the hike and wetted us to the bones and the fog that ruined all the great views of the day...
So we went to bed early, which was hardly more than a blanket on the floor with a mosquito net above. That was enough though, we had signed up for an adventurous hike and not for trip to a spa after all.
The next day started with a bit of toast, egg, tea and coffee. Wait, that's wrong. It started with never ending crowing of the local roosters at about 4.30am. Unless you are a very heavy sleeper, that can be annoying. Luckily the rain had finally stopped during the night. Finally, we could see where we were. Not much of a point in me describing it when I can just show you a picture...
Then we started the next day's hike. A lot of rainforest and a few streams and waterfalls. Stick insects, millipedes, frogs and spiders. Mosquitoes. Proper rainforest. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it, but better - meaning dryer - weather would have been awesome! None of us was really keen to go swimming once we had reached the particular waterfall where that was possible. We just chilled out by the riverside. When we continued our hike, John new a few holes in the dirt next to the road that he pointed out to us. Both of them contained a huge but easily startled black bird-eating spider! It was necessary to approach it very slowly and quietly, otherwise it would vanish into the depth of its burrow. But here comes the interesting part: John took a long blade of grass and tapped it onto the entrance of the burrow. The spider started to emerge a little further, until it was right at spot that was being tapped. It then lifted its front legs and suddenly made a dash forward, trying to grab whatever it was that was moving there. Super awesome! I tried it myself later, and believe me, those spiders are strong! Am I happy that it was just the grass it grabbed (and probably bit) and not my finger!
In this video you can see the spider attacking the blade of grass!
You can also watch this video directly on Youtube or download it in full quality from here.
At some point during the day John told us that we couldn't go rafting, since the heavy rainfall of the previous day and night had turned the stream into a raging river. But then we had already done that, so that was not too bad. Instead we'd go to a famous temple north of Chiang Mai.
Once we had made it down the mountain, we had lunch, which was some delicious fried rice. Then we all got into a van again and drove most of the way back to Chiang Mai to the elephant camp. I don't know why they make such a big a fuss about it, but there are almost no places left where you can actually ride an elephant like we had done in Kanchanaburi. I don't see how riding an elephant could harm it, but all these "elephant rescue camps" advertise that you can't ride elephants there. Maybe I lack crucial information, but that seems like a big marketing campaign based on false or exaggerated facts to me. I don't know. Riding being right or wrong, we actually found just feeding and bathing the elephants to be way more fun and enjoyable anyways, so no hurt feelings. And yes, I'm fairly certain that the elephants did enjoy the feeding part, though the bathing seemed to annoy them a little. Everybody agreed that it was a very nice experience.
And then we headed to the temple. It was big. It had lot of statues. It was very impressive. But after one or two weeks in Thailand you simply have seen enough of Buddhist Temples. You can have a look at a few pictures, but I'm not going to elaborate any further.
There was a lot of confusion in Chiang Mai, whether we could and should rent and ride a motorbike there. According to our host Thedda, the situation was such that we as Germans couldn't do anything right, even if we had a valid international motorbike license due to political confusions. We did have an international license, but it only allowed us to drive cars. Our German license does include small motorbikes up to 45 km/h, but that's not enough for Germany to add it into the international license. Also, you don't get such small bikes in Thailand. On the other hand, it's Thailand. Who cares about a license? That is the general way things are. But then the police got a little stricter recently (so we heard). Also, no license, no insurance. But without a bike, getting around is difficult. And just riding a motorbike is fun by itself. So what the hell should we do, and how???
In the end we learned that the most probable scenario that would occur if we decided to get a bike was that we'd be stopped by the police, asked for our license and then be asked to pay a 500 Baht fine, because no matter what the license says, it wouldn't be valid anyways. We'd then get a receipt that would say that we had paid the fine and that would also allow us to continue riding the bike for three days without being fined again. Yeah, it's still Thailand. To me, riding a bike in Chiang Mai was worth those 500 Baht, and so we decided to get one bike, so we'd just have to pay the fine once. Just before we rented the bike, we went to a police station to try and clarify the situation. "No English, go to another station near the train station". There: "No English, go to tourist information". There: "You should be fine". Then we where pointed to a rental company, both by the "tourist informationist" and the police officer. Swell. So we got the bike, entered our destination into maps and drove onto the highway. And promptly, we were stopped by a pack of police officers standing at the side of the road signaling us to pull over. They wanted to see our/my license. I assumed a very friendly smile and handed my license to the officer. He examined it. Then he showed it to at least one of his colleagues. Then he gave it back to us and told us to continue. We wished him a good day and gladly did so. 10 minutes later we were stopped again. "License please". With the same smile I handed my license over again. He examined it. He showed it to at least one of his colleagues. Then he very politely explained to us that this was an international drivers license alright, but that it - unfortunately - only allowed us to drive a smaller bike than the one we had. Wow, that dude actually knew what he was talking about. So we paid the aforementioned 500 Baht, got our "three day license" and went on, to be never stopped again during the following days. Lovely.
What we did that day was go to a viewpoint at the western end of the city. There are a few tracks (and a waterfall) around, so we decided to check it out. Well, I did. We had been running through so many jungles already, yet I had never had enough time to actually try and find all the interesting critter that populates it, and that I'm quite interested in. So here, we took it slowly. Basically, we spent a few hours just photographing every tiny little insect or reptile we found, which was quite a lot. It is surprising how many big spiders, praying mantises, caterpillars, beetles and stick insects you can find in a small area, if you just look at what's there! Once I get the time I'll add a link to a lot of the pictures I took that day somewhere here, but for now let's focus on other things.
The next day, we decided to ride the bike to Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand (2565m). It's a 2 hour ride from Chiang Mai, mostly on busy highways. I'd strongly recommend getting some respiratory protection. I got an headache, probably from all the dust and exhaust fumes during the ride. If you want to make it to the very top of the mountain, it's gonna cost you 300 Baht per adult plus 20 Baht per bike. The climate on the summit is amazing. It's cold. 16 degrees Celsius when we where there, with 12 degrees being the average. It can get below 0 though! It is a real cloud forest. Often foggy, with mosses, orchids and ferns growing everywhere. On the ground, on rooftops, on trunks and branches of trees. An amazing new world in the tropic jungles and dry(er) hot plains of northern Thailand! Definitely recommendable to visit, if you have the time! Unfortunately, due to low light, I was not able to capture the atmosphere on good pictures but I'll show you what I got. The area you can explore is not very extensive, at least from what I've seen. Also, we did not have much time, since we wanted to try to make most of the way back in daylight.
If you want to take a motorbike to Doi Inthanon as well, consider getting one per person, as the low air pressure and steep ascends were very hard on our overloaded vehicle, top speed sometimes being below 20 km/h. Also, we almost ran out fuel. But since the way back is mostly downhill, that didn't get us overly worried and there are small shops or shacks where you can get fuel, just have a look at maps. You may not see them otherwise.
We spend a long time in Chiang Mai, partly because we also wanted a few days for relaxation, partly because we where waiting for an important letter to arrive from Germany. I think I have now mentioned all the highlights in Chiang Mai and the rest of the days can be summarized by the following: We watched a lot of Netflix. We walked through the city a lot. We sweated a lot. We visited the post office often. We explored a number of night markets and sampled the local streetfood. And then we finally got our letter. As soon as it arrived, we packed our bags and walked to the bus terminal, got tickets and went to Pai, a small town even further up north than Chiang Mai.
Pai is amazing. People speak good English and live in houses that are build - I don't know - properly?! Hedges are cut and gardens maintained. There are trashcans at the side of the road. Most or many people seem to be muslims. It's even cheaper than Chiang Mai and crowded with backpackers. Bars everywhere and an amazing "Walking Street" food market in the evenings. Nobody bothers with drivers licenses. If you run into a police block they may check for drugs, but not for licenses. 10 year old local kids are riding motorbikes. Everybody is friendly and helpful. Not that they were not in other places, but here it seems even more pronounced. So far we've gotten ourselves two bikes again and explored the area. There's a number of spots to check out, but it is a fairly small town, so a day or two and you'll have seen "everything". Sightseeing tours go to, guess what, waterfalls. Also a bridge, a small house build up-side down in the city center, viewpoints, hotsprings and so forth. By now, we have seen almost all these places and we do have to start thinking about getting back to Bangkok. Our time in Thailand is almost over. And I am happy to say that I am ready to go back home. Mission accomplished, haha. No, seriously, it is always nice when you're traveling and suddenly realize that you have managed to cool of enough to be ready to continue your life back home. That you would like to have a look in a book again, that you're curious what the next semester may bring. That you're keen to learn new stuff. Ready to go back to your projects at home. Of course, there is a lot more to explore in Thailand, and a lot of places I'd like to live in for a month or two, to really get to know them. But that will have to wait for another trip. It's time to leave paradise. Bye bye amazing landscapes, thick jungles, heat and humidity, beautiful butterflies and bird-eating spiders and, most of all, bye bye mosquito-plague!