Elephants, lanterns and markets in Chiang Mai

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The last two weeks were spent in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We were very happy to be able to spend the fortnight with my Mum (Granny), and my Uncle Geoff and Aunty Anne. My Dad also joined us for our last few days there, which was very special, as we hadn’t seen him since we left Sydney in January. We weren’t too sure what to expect of Chiang Mai, but we left the city with a feeling that we would definitely like to return one day.

It was great spending a lot of time with Granny, and we loved exploring Chiang Mai with her. Elena loved going to a massage place and getting her nails done with Granny (whilst I had a massage upstairs). We did a lot of walking with my Mum and discovering Chiang Mai’s hidden restaurants and many temples. We were very lucky to spend the time with my Uncle and Aunt – Anne is Thai, from Chiang Mai, and full of local knowledge and wisdom.

Chiang Mai is a big city, but the old city is a perfect square surrounded by moats and ancient walls, which is perfectly walkable. Most of our time was spent within the Old City, and it was full of excellent food, good value, and plenty of lovely Thai people who adored and gave food to our kids.

We really enjoyed going to Anne’s parents house for lunch one day. They don’t speak English, but they prepared a delicious lunch for us (which included bugs) and they showed us around their little farm where they grow plenty of fruits and vegetables. We even had a little ride in their side cart. It was great to be able to really experience some Thai culture outside of what you normally see as a tourist.

On that note – Chiang Mai was not overly touristy, which we loved. Of course there were plenty of foreigners, but the place wasn’t overrun with them (like in Phuket, our current location), and it meant that the culture wasn’t suppressed at all. We really felt like we experienced Thailand well while we were there.

Elena after a successful market purchase

I felt like if I had to highlight one thing I loved about Chiang Mai, it would be the markets. On any night of the week we could go to a market – there was a daily food market right next to the ancient city wall full of delicious Northern Thai cuisine, Friday night flea markets within a temple complex, and on Saturday and Sunday nights certain streets in the Old City were closed off to traffic and filled with many different stalls, from food, to artisan crafts, to mass produced thai elephant key rings and scarves. The Saturday and Sunday Walking Streets were huge. After two hours of walking on a particular Saturday night, we had perhaps managed about half of the market (and this was walking freely without kids).

Mae Rim Elephant Sanctuary

My Mum had one wish while we were in Chiang Mai – to visit an elephant sanctuary. There are plenty to choose from, but we eventually settled on the Mae Rim elephant sanctuary. It was a really amazing experience spending a day with the elephants and one that we really can’t compare to anything else we’ve ever done. It is one thing to go and see an elephant in a zoo, but quite another to be walking amongst them and helping to take care of them.

Our day with the elephants started by hand feeding them bananas, with a fence separating us. I’m sure that this is a strategic move, as elephants close up are really quite overwhelming at first – they are very big creatures! We did have quite a panicky moment as we were feeding them at first as the 1 year old baby elephant managed to knock a bar of the fence over and escape towards us – our hearts were hammering as it lumbered towards our small children. Thankfully the mahouts (elephant carers) were on top of things and saved our babies.

After the initial introduction, we changed into some very flattering denim outfits – elephants can see blue and yellow colours well, so our clothing made things easier and safer for all involved. Then we filled up our bags and pockets with more bananas and this time, we were inside the enclosure and close up with the elephants. We were fascinated by the way the elephants used their trunks to take the bananas from our hands and feed themselves, and how they searched us for more. They were very clever in that they always knew if we had a banana hidden away, and quite forceful. It didn’t take us long to get used to the elephants – I know it sounds cliche, but they truly are gentle giants. Elena was quite taken with the elephants, and really enjoyed feeding them herself. Kilian was not so thrilled and quite frightened by their roaming trunks, although he did warm up to them as the day progressed.

The rest of the day involved a trip to the local sugar cane field to cut the elephants some treats, feeding the cane to the elephants, and walking with them to the river where they played with the sand and the water, throwing it over their backs. The baby was very cute (in a massive way) as it frolicked about just like our own one year old. After the elephants had finished at the river, they went to their very own mud spa, where we lathered mud onto their backs, and then helped them to wash it off in a deeper section of the river. You could absolutely tell that they were enjoying this part, as they lolled about in the water being splashed and rubbed.

Just, you know, walking with some elephants

It was pretty incredible spending a day with elephants, and something I’m sure none of us will forget in a hurry. There are way too many photos of this to include in this post, but check out our gallery to see more.

Loy Krathong and Yi Peng

So this one was on my bucket list, and was the reason we decided to come to Chiang Mai (the fact that my family was here too was actually a happy coincidence). All we knew was that it was a lantern festival, but it turned out to be that, and more.

Loy Krathong is a festival where krathongs, little banana leaf boats traditionally filled with flowers and candles are floated down the Ping river in Chiang Mai. It is supposed to be an offering to the water god, to apologise for wrongs. Yi Peng is the lantern festival, where thousands of lanterns are floated into the sky – an offering to the sky god.

A very special krathong for Elena – korp khun ka, Gramps!

We really enjoyed being part of the festival, although when we released our krathongs we said a cheeky thanks to Jesus instead. We loved the festive feeling in the city – lanterns were hanging everywhere, the night before Yi Peng there were thousands of candles set up outside houses and on walls and everywhere. The main square was filled with lanterns, big and small, there were so many street vendors everywhere, and the atmosphere was great.

The absolute highlight though, was releasing our own lanterns into the sky. The first two we tried to float were by the river, and it was a bit windy so they were hilarious failures – one ignited itself about a metre from the ground, and the next fell straight into the river. The best part came later, when we joined the crowds of other tourists with arms full of paper lanterns and released our own into the sky. It was probably one of the most amazing things we’ve ever experienced – seeing hundred of lanterns floating into the sky, getting smaller and smaller until they were just specks of warm light in the distance. Our photos cannot do it justice, but at risk of sounding corny, it was a magical experience. We’ve done a lot this year, but this is definitely one of the best things.

So, the verdict on Chiang Mai is that it is a great place that we really appreciated. For me, it is definitely on my “must-return” list – hopefully for another lantern festival one day!

3 Responses

  1. Andrew
    | Reply

    Another fantastic travel blog… thanks so much Megan for sharing your experiences (again). Janette now has Chiang Mai and Yi Peng on our “must get there one day” list!

    • Megan Richardson
      | Reply

      Thanks Andrew. When you do go, we’ll come too!

  2. Donald Richardson
    | Reply

    Yes, I agree with Andrew. Another fascinating experience.

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