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Mountains, Festivals, and Elephants in Chiang Mai (Oh My!)

After a few days in the Big Mango, Chris and I headed north to Chiang Mai to add mountains, festivals, and elephants to our Thailand experience. We arrived to find the city decorated from end-to-end in preparation for the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng celebrations, which was the entire reason we planned this trip in November during the full moon when these festivals take place.

On our first full day, we took a road trip up into the mountains and split the morning at two sites: first, the Hmong tribe hillside village, followed by a visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

Hmong village sits high on a hill above Chiang Mai and offers a peek into the tribe culture via a small museum, lush gardens, and a long pathway of shops selling handmade wares. We enjoyed exploring there and found a lovely spot for a cup of locally grown coffee…as in, it was sourced right there in the mountains! The Hmong people that settled here previously farmed opium poppies until the Thai government intervened and encouraged the tribe to farm other wares such as coffee beans.

After our village visit we ascended upon the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple and I wondered if we should have switched the order of our itinerary that day. Not only was the famous wat overwhelmingly crowded, we missed out on the cooler morning temperatures and found ourselves rushing through the gold-covered pagodas and shrines just to escape the heat. Have I mentioned here before how I don’t do well in extreme heat and crowds? The temple is so beautiful though, and I would still include it on a Chiang Mai must-see list with the strong recommendation to go as soon as the doors open!

We returned to the city in time for lunch and decided to eat at a women’s prison, as you do. The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution Vocational Training Center rehabilitates inmates for reintegration back into society. The women learn skills in traditional Thai massage, as well as run the adjacent restaurant where Chris and I enjoyed two variations of Pad Thai – one is the more familiar style we see at home in the States, and the other is when the dish is enveloped in a thin, crepe-like egg wrap. Both delicious.

We also tried the signature dish of Chiang Mai, khao soi, but I (please don’t throw rocks at me) wasn’t a huuuge fan. We tried it again later in the week and I still couldn’t get on board, but I’m glad we at least tried it. Exploring new foods has become one of our very favorite parts of travel whether we actually like every dish or not!

And then as if our day wasn’t satisfying enough already, we finished with a truly magical private festival reception at our hotel resort (stay tuned for more about our Thailand accommodations in a future post). We got a little dolled up and dined under the stars accompanied by thousands of lanterns gently floating overhead. To partake in both the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng traditions, we each lit and launched our own krathongs and lanterns from the peaceful banks of the Mae Ping River.

I’m not sure what else could top that night, except I DO KNOW BECAUSE IT’S ELEPHANTS.

We spent the next day about an hour north of Chiang Mai at Elephant Nature Park! A whole park of elephants. So many elephants. And you get to interact with them and feed them and care for them and hear their stories and it’s amazing. In fact, here are a few of my favorite images from that day, but I think I’ll write a separate post solely about ENP (background info, logistics, what to expect, etc.) because we had such a fantastic experience and took one billion photos.

On our last full day in Chiang Mai, Chris and I spent our remaining time getting hour-long traditional Thai massages (for $6!), patronizing our favorite cafe one last time, shopping, and then scoping out the night markets for souvenirs and street food. As you scroll through the photos below, note that we chose to eat mango sticky rice rather than grasshoppers and crickets, and I’m thankful for that decision.

And that wraps up our time in the north! If Chris and I ever have the opportunity to return to Thailand, we will undoubtedly spend time in Chiang Mai again. I can easily understand now why it has become a backpacker favorite in the Southeast Asia region – we found a little bit of everything here, and the size of the city felt significantly more manageable compared to Bangkok. I would have loved to stay longer, but next up on our itinerary was a bit of island hopping around the Andaman Sea!

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