Elephants & Lanterns

Once again, I am woefully behind in keeping up with posting about our travels. In my defense, a couple of local trips with family & friends intervened. But now, back to Thailand…

A couple of months ago, I wrote about our first few days in Bangkok, where we stayed in Chinatown, a section of that city we both really enjoyed, not least for the amazing street food.

On our fourth day in Thailand, we got up early to catch a flight to Chiang Mai, in the north. Although we had considered taking the train–both to have the experience and see a bit of the countryside as we traveled–once we did some research we decided against it, mainly because it would take up, we thought, too much precious time out of our already short visit. In retrospect, I think the train may have been the better option.

What we thought was going to be a low-key, domestic one-hour flight within Thailand was actually quite a big deal, with multiple security checks, herding into different holding areas, culminating in boarding a plane I swear was larger than the one we flew from Boston. Add to that the normal annoyances and time suck of aiport travel, and really the train may have been more relaxing overall.

In any case, we arrived to Chiang Mai in the early afternoon, and after checking into our hotel (which was really lovely; because we would be there over the New Year’s holiday, we had splurged a bit for this portion of the trip and have no regrets), we went for a walk to find some lunch.

Chiang Mai felt laid back, and was very, very walkable. It was comfortable, in an I-could-live-here sort of way. Odd, I know, to say that about someplace you just landed, but that’s how it felt. Everybody sort of strolled, nobody seemed to be in a rush.

And we eventually strolled to Peppermint Cafe, which we had seen recommended as having excellent khao soi, the famous dish of Chiang Mai. We ordered two bowls and a large bottle of Chang; condiment jars on the table looked enticingly spicy for kicking up the heat. The khao soi was in fact VERY delicious, and we made good use of those condiments, as we enjoyed relaxing at this open-air cafe sharing a beer and people-watching.

The rest of the day was low key, checking out the neighborhood and obtaining a SIM card so we could stop paying AT&T their exorbitant data charges. We got a good rest for our big day tomorrow: New Year’s Eve!

Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

I had done a lot of research on places that worked with elephants, looking for something ethically responsible and that did not allow riding. I found what I was looking for in Elephant Jungle Sanctuary.

We were up early for a 5:30AM pickup, as it was a bit of a drive to the sanctuary. Jostling along in the back of a flatbed truck with a tarp cover, we met other travelers as they were picked up along the way, trading stories about where we each had been and were headed next. It always fun to meet others who have as much of a travel bug as yourself.

And then, we spent a truly wonderful day learning about the elephants, feeding them, and walking down with them to first a mud bath, and then the river. The elephants clearly were well cared for, and loved by the staff, who spoke passionately about their mission to rescue these beautiful animals from exploitative industries.

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After rinsing off the mud and changing into dry clothes, we shared a hot lunch together before climbing back into the trucks for the ride back to the hotel. The pictures really don’t do the day justice, but I hope they convey a bit of how special this experience was.

The best foot rub I’ve ever had

After returning to our hotel mid-afternoon (and still smelling a bit like elephants), we took a stroll to check out the preparations for the evening. Vendors were busily setting up stalls on what seemed like every road near our hotel (we were basically in the center of the old town, prime location for the festivities). Food, trinkets, clothing, you name it. As we walked we purchased some sausages from a street cart that looked and smelled enticing, and enjoyed just being part of the hustle & bustle.

One thing Chiang Mai is known for, and has no shortage of, is massage. Numerous places offered both traditional Thai (fully clothed, full body) massages as well as foot rubs, from upscale salons to open-air platforms on the grounds of wats, but on this night there were what seemed to be dozens and dozens of chairs set up along the sidewalks for just footrubs, by the half-hour and hour, and very inexpensive (I think they were 120THB for an hour; about $3.50). We decided this was a great thing to do before getting ready for the evening, and sat down in a couple of comfy recliners right near the gate to our hotel. One blissful hour later and we were ready for naps.

Happy New Year!

Rested, showered and ready for the evening, we headed out to the festivities. The hotel was decorated beautifully for the “gala” dinner that was included with the room rate for this night. As the sun set, and the lanterns were lit, it was really a magical setting.

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Drinks and snacks around the giant Tamarind tree in the central yard led to a buffet dinner around the pool; hot and cold stations with both Thai and international dishes had been set up all around the main building, so that nothing was overly crowded. The best, for me, were the freshly grilled giant prawns. There was too much to try everything.

There was some traditional Thai music, and dancers, and then a band playing 80s and 90s pop hits  started. Around this time we looked skyward, and saw streams of lanterns rising into the sky, so we decided to take a break from the fancy stuff and head to the main city gate. It was a short walk from our hotel, and easy enough to find; everyone else was heading there as well. Vendors were roaming the crowd selling lanterns and lighters.

Our technique was a bit sloppy (first time doing this and all) but we eventually got it up and alight…and made a wish for the new year as our lantern joined the other hundreds floating up into the sky.

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Next up: learning to cook, exploring the Chiang Mai wats…and we may have managed to fit in another foot rub.

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