Chiangmai, Northern Thailand: figuring out this backpacking malark!

The Thailand leg of the year’s adventures began in Bangkok, at a family friend’s home where we stayed just one night and had the most delicious introduction to Thai food! This set us up for some initial food-related disappointment when we arrived in Chiangmai the following day and took a couple of days to really figure out the city and its eateries, falling into tourist-trap restaurants on more than one occasion out of sheer hangry desperation. Thankfully after a few trials and errors we found some more local-style restaurants that we felt better suited our tastes and our budget.

It also took us a bit of time to figure out how to fill our days in the way we wanted to, always being told that we needed a guide for just about every trek or trip we did. On the first day our guesthouse owner organised a tuk tuk driver (Aun) to take us around the city’s alentours to see the temples which surround Chiangmai, and visit some other local sites. The first stop was the well-known Doi Suthep, an opulent Buddhist temple perched on a hill, but the gaggle of people posing in front of the various Buddhas really brought on some post-NZ sadness and made it slightly harder to appreciate the temple’s beauty! We fought our way through the selfie sticks and back to the waiting spot for Aun, feeling a bit subdued. However, the next stop was at a secluded stone temple with moss growing over the ancient stones, sitting atop a waterfall overlooking the city. That was more like it! We arranged with Aun that we would meet him at the bottom of the hill, and made our way through lush Thai forest alongside the waterfall. The meeting spot did not work out, and after an odd encounter with 2 policemen who didn’t really help but insisted on taking a picture with us, we had to climb back up the hill in blistering heat, borrow another driver’s phone and track down Aun. Thankfully the beauty of the walk, the temple, and the waterfall made up for this unexpected hassle!

The next few stops involved: lunch at a lake (see picture above!) which was simple but tasty, a trip to a beautiful rice field, one more temple, and then home. It was an interesting day, and it was good to get out of the city and figure out the geography of the area.

The next day we organised a day kayaking, and a jungle trek. The trek took place the following day in a group of 8, and although the walk itself was very pretty, I was not thrilled to be told to walk slowly so that the 2km (!) walk could last 2 hours. We were a bit annoyed because we clearly didn’t need a guide for such a short and simple walk, with a perfectly maintained path and bamboo bridges (considering the fuss made about NEEDING a guide, we had imagined a local with a machete leading us through dense tropical forest!).

We were bussed around a lot on this so-called jungle trek, and the last stop was at temple Doi Inthanon, situated on Thailand’s highest peak. Search Chiangmai on Google Images and this is the first picture you see, understandably as it is without a doubt very picturesque with its interesting colours and manicured gardens, but once again the hundreds and hundreds of people slightly altered the atmosphere!

If I held the camera a millimetre lower, this would be a picture of an overcrowded car park!

The next organised trip was much more successful, as we spent a day kayaking down one of Chiangmai’s neighbouring rivers. It was a great day, I felt like we had done some really good exercise, and floating through (and getting caught in) low hanging bamboo trees and vines, with spiders falling on me (several at a time- take a second and imagine my reaction) definitely felt like an authentic experience, albeit somewhat horrifying at the same time! The tour was really well organised and we had a lot of fun with the other participants and the guides (thanks for the recommendation Josie!).

Our last day in Chiangmai was my favourite. We hired a scooter and braved the crazy roads (not as bad as we feared), and drove out to the Bua Thong “sticky” waterfalls. This was an awesome destination; the waterfall flows down 5 levels of limestone rock which has incredible grip even under bare feet, so you can easily walk up through the fast flowing water. It also happens to be beautiful, free of charge, and not over-run with other people, woohoo!

Once we found our feet in Chiangmai we really loved it, especially the scope for outdoor activities in the surrounding nature. We had a lovely stay in the Banjai Garden Guesthouse (run by a French man, which obviously equals croissants and great coffee for breakfast!) and would definitely recommend this hotel to anyone thinking of taking a trip here. As our first step on the backpacking trip, we learned through these few days that it’s really important to prioritise what YOU want to do and not what the guides and guide books are telling you is possible. So for us that’s discovering surrounding nature as independently as we can, getting in some exercise, spending longer in lesser-known temples rather than the bigger ones that the tuk tuk drivers will automatically assume you want to see, and trawling through Trip Advisor to find restaurants with the all-important 1$ sign but also great reviews.

Coconut Shell, favourite restaurant in Chiangmai- dinner for $5, cheap, cheerful, and delicious!

The adventure continues, next stop: Luang Prabang, Laos!

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