It almost always takes me a few days to acclimatise when we arrive somewhere new. I expect to feel slightly unsettled – a bit homesick (usually for the place we’ve just left). Whilst accepting that, I still try to tune in and get a sense of our surroundings. I usually have quite a strong feeling telling me whether this new place is somewhere we will be happy to stay for a while, whether it will become a favourite, or not. Over the course of this year I’ve come to trust these instincts, as they’ve often turned out to be accurate.
When we arrived in Chiang Mai at the end of April, I immediately felt happy, relaxed and relieved. We had come from Koh Samui where we’d spent a week with Keith’s sister enjoying a lovely villa with an incredible view and nice food but the island itself is not somewhere we’d rush back to. In contrast, Chiang Mai felt much more authentically Thai, with more history, culture and also something else, something different and more interesting than everywhere else we’d been in Thailand. On the drive from the airport I saw people and places that made me curious and excited. There was a bit of a bohemian feel and a great mix of different nationalities walking around – not loads of tourists though, many who looked like they were locals.
We had originally planned to spend just a few days in Chiang Mai, primarily to visit the Elephant Nature Park, which is the most well known and well regarded sanctuary in Thailand. About a month or so before arriving we decided to extend our time when we rearranged our Nepal trek and because so many other travelling families I am in contact with had loved it. So we now had ten days to explore Thailand’s second city and ancient capital.
Our first three days were a whirlwind of night markets (Saturday and Sunday’s are the best), amazing food, zip lining in the mountains and Elephants. There are tons of activities that you can do from Chiang Mai, so it attracts a lot of people seeking adventure. The Elephant Nature Park was the highlight for me and will stand out as one of our most incredible days over the year. It was set up over twenty years ago by a Thai woman who has since worked tirelessly to raise money to rescue Elephants from horrendous ‘domesticated’ situations and rehabilitate them back to mental and physical health, so they are then able to roam free on the 500 acres of land at the park. We visited for a day, in 40 degree heat, walking around the park and spending time with the 76 strong herd. We were able to get extremely close to many of these huge, beautiful beasts. In fact so much so it could be a little scary on occasion – for example when a huge elephant wanders up to ‘explore’ your 6yr old or when a baby elephant does a runner from it’s herd and mahout and charges straight towards you! But mostly it was breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful. Such an amazing experience and one that I think is worth a visit to Thailand alone. Some footage of our day at the park can be seen here
We said goodbye to Keith’s sister and her partner after three days and decided to spend our remaining week just ‘living’ in Chiang Mai and exploring as much as we could but without leaving the city. We planned to do a couple of hours school work each day, eat in as many restaurants as possible – something that you can do even on a budget in Chiang Mai 🙂 and spend the late afternoons and evenings, when it’s cooler, exploring different parts of the city. There is a beautiful, walled old town with a different temple every 200 yards or so, restaurants and of course massage places galore! The rest of the city is then sprawled over quite a large area beyond the walls, with many more hotels, restaurants, temples and shopping malls.
After consulting our go to travel app ‘trip advisor’, we had a list of areas we wanted to visit and top of that list was Nimman. Nimman is a small district 2km beyond the city walls. It reminded me of somewhere like Shoreditch in London with a really young, vibrant community and bohemian feel. There are dozens of small independent boutiques, coffee shops, yoga studios and massage places. We got a tuk tuk here on four or five occasions for a meal or massage or just to wander. I will certainly consider staying in this area when I return.
On our second day that week we decided to pay a visit to an art studio that some friends had recommended. They had spent time in Chiang Mai last year and their daughters had gone to a ‘drop in art class’ for a couple of hours. We are always looking for activities the girls might enjoy and it was a particularly attractive option as we were told it was possible to leave the kids and therefore have a couple of hours alone! We arrived around 3pm and the studio was locked up. We were about to leave when Noina turned up. Noina, who runs the studio, is a middle aged, quiet and shy woman, which meant I couldn’t initially tell whether she was pleased to see us or not. We explained that we’d heard it was possible to turn up for a class and asked if the girls could spend the afternoon there. Without saying much, she pulled out some chairs, gave them each a piece of paper and pencil and that was that – the class started! Keith and I popped next door for a massage, unable to believe our luck! Little did we know that our three would beg to return every single day until we left. They absolutely loved it, which was as much of a surprise to them as us (we are not really known as artists in our family). They went for six days in a row for 2-3 hours. The drawings and paintings they created over that week and the relationship they developed with Noina will be one of our fondest memories of our time in Chiang Mai. http://noinaartstudio.wix.com/noina
Whilst the girls took their art classes, I attend a couple of Tantra Yoga sessions (which I loved and would totally recommend) and Keith and I wandered the streets of Chiang Mai, shopped in Nimman, had massages, drank coffee and just had some time together away from the kids. Having a little space that week meant that when we were together again as a family we were much more harmonious. It was a wonderful tonic for us all.
The girls did some research on Buddhism and on one afternoon we went to a ‘Monk Chat’ at Wat Chedi Luang (my absolute favourite temple in Chiang Mai). There are time slots available when Monks from the temple will come and sit in the grounds and chat to visitors. They are keen to practice their English and it’s a great opportunity to learn more about their philosophy and way of life. We met Van, a young man who had been a Monk for thirteen years. The girls asked a bunch of questions they’d prepared (All the big important ones like; Why do you shave your head? What time do you go to bed? Do you like tuk tuk rides?) and he shared some of his beliefs and way of life with us. He was such a lovely, wise man and I’ve since found myself asking “What would Van say?” on several occasions. I find it helpful. The girls tend to find it annoying.
The ten days flew by, we celebrated nine months since we left home and soon we were packing to leave. Each one of us loved Chiang Mai. It was blisteringly hot (average 38/39) this time of year (April), but by then we’d spent seven weeks in Asia and acclimatised to the heat pretty well. We tended not to walk long distances during the day and instead took tuk tuks to get from A to B (Tuk Tuks continue to be an absolute winner as far as the kids are concerned and are a great ‘mood lifter’ when needed, for the cost of about £2 a go.) Almost all the cafes and restaurants have air con, so you can always get some respite if you’re flagging and most of our walking took place in the evening, when the temperature is a really lovely 30 or 32.
Chiang Mai shot to my number one spot in Asia and I know I will be recommending it to anyone and everyone thinking of a trip to Thailand. We stayed in an apartment for the first few days in the old town and then moved to a hotel just outside the walls for the second week. Our hotel was lovely and very spacious compared to what we’ve been used to, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as I think there are plenty of others. One thing you would want if you visit is a pool to cool off during the day.
Below is a list of some of our favourite restaurants as a resource for anyone lucky enough to pass through and who might want a few ‘tried and tested’ places to go, in addition to the activities linked to above.
The House – Ginger & Kafe – A really lovely Thai/International restaurant, cafe and boutique. A bit pricier than most but worth it for the beautiful surroundings and cocktails. Just on the outskirts of the walled city.
Aacha Indian restaurant in Nimman – We had a great curry here on one of our first evenings in Nimman
Morning Glory – Vegetarian Thai restaurant and cooking class
Rustic and Blue – A healthy, ‘farm to kitchen’ concept in Nimman, with some of the best tacos we have eaten outside of Mexico
The Hideout café: A nice little cafe which does healthy breakfasts and lunches
Good Souls – An amazing Vegan restaurant that was recommended by my yoga teacher. We all loved it – especially the curry spiced potato wedges!
The Salad Concept – Does what it says on the tin and is the place responsible for our three kids eating more salad than I’ve ever seen them eat before!