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Published: February 17th 2009
A 1 hour flight courtesy of Air Asia got us to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, saving us an overnight train journey of 12-14 hours!
Our visit to Chiang Mai couldn't have been better timed, as Friday 6th Feb was the start of the annual Flower Festival. Chiang Mai is known as the "Rose of the North" for its variety of flowers which all come into bloom in early February. The annual Flower Festival in the city is the biggest flower festival in Thailand and is a 3-day event showcasing locally grown flowers. The highlight of the festival is the Saturday parade, which consists of beautiful flower-draped floats along with Thai and hilltribe girls in traditional dress. There is also a beauty contest to crown the Queen of the Flower Festival. Down at the Tha Pae Gate in the Old Quater, performances of traditional song and dance are held every night and there are dozens of market stalls selling handcrafts and food.
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand and is the cultural heart of the country. It's a popular place to take cooking, language or massage classes and the city also has over 300 temples, which
is nearly as many as Bangkok, though Chiang Mai is a lot smaller. The Old Quarter is choc-full of temples and we visited several while in the city. Wat Phra Singh is the biggest temple in the Old Quarter. It dates back to the 14th century and is an example of the Lanna temples that were built in Chiang Mai.
The most famous temple in Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep, which was built on the top of a mountain overlooking the city. It's said that a white elephant was carrying the ashes of the Buddha to a temple where the King wished to have them buried. However, the elephant died before reaching the temple, so the king decided to build a new temple on the spot. There are 306 steps leading to the top of the mountain which are lined with 2 ceramic dragons. It's one of the north's most sacred temples and the views over the city are stunning.
Chiang Mai has a lovely relaxed vibe about it. There's a big ex-pat community living here so it's quite westernised and, despite its status as Thailand's second city, it's easy to get around on foot. The traditional dish
here is called Kao Soi. It's a northern Thai curry and is more stew-like than the curries in the south. We found a great restaurant up by the ThaPae Gate run by a local family and serving traditional northern cuisine. The Kao Soi was delicious and cost the grand total of 65 baht (less than €1.50). Needless to say, it quickly became our favourite place to eat!
Chiang Mai is also famous for its night market, which has to be experienced to be believed! It's huge - taking over several blocks in the Old Quarter and there are even market stalls in the grounds of the temples! It seems like the whole of Chiang Mai province comes into the city for the night market, the streets are absolutely thronged with people and mopeds line all the pavements. Everything under the sun can be bought at the market and there are also traditional musicians and fire jugglers.
The undoubted highlight of our time in Chiang Mai was our visit to the Elephant Nature Park
. The Elephant Nature park is a sanctuary for orphaned, injured and mistreated elephants and is run by a woman named Lek Chailert. Lek started off with just
4 elephants and no land and gradually expanded the project to where it is now. Today, there are 36 elephants in the park with a staff of 70 volunteers and paid local workers. The park is set in the mountains on 300 acres of land that is bordered by a river. It's breathtaking scenery! While we were there, we learned about the mistreatment of elephants in Thai society and the various conservation projects that Lek is involved in. We also got to feed and bathe the elephants, which was an incredible experience!
While we had been in Bangkok, we had seen an elephant on the street begging. A lot of tourists dining in a nearby restaurant came out to take pictures and buy bread to feed the elephant. At the Elephant Nature Park, the volunteers explained that elephants pick up vibrations from the ground through their feet. On concrete pavements, they can't sense anything which causes them enormous stress. They are also often involved in traffic accidents; one of the rescued elephants in the park had been hit by an 18-wheel truck. The staff at the park are currently petitioning the Thai government to make this practice illegal.
It's not only elephants that are rescued at the Nature Park. There are also rescued dogs, cats and refugees from Cambodia who are employed in the running of the park. It's a pretty new concept in Thailand and the idea is not always welcomed by local people who traditionally used elephants for logging. But, with Thailand's elephant population now standing at only 1500 (down from 10,000 a couple of decades ago), it's this kind of project that is the only hope for the survival of Asian elephants in Thailand.
The mountains surrounding Chiang Mai are also home to several different hilltribes who came from neighbouring Laos, Cambodia, Burma and China many moons ago. While in Chiang Mai, we visited a Hmong hilltribe village and got a taste for how the local people live. The villagers are mostly farmers, but with increasing tourism they are also turning to selling handcrafts to makes ends meet. Our guide explained to us that the hilltribes used to grow opium in the surrounding hills. However, as the same land can't be cultivated twice, every year they would set fire to the hills and find new land on which to grow. This was becoming an
increasing environmental problem, so the government have now offered the tribes free education and legal citizenship in exchange for giving up the practice.
Even though we only spent 5 days in Chiang Mai, the beauty of the people, scenery, flowers, elephants and food made a big impression on us and this is definitely a city we intend to re-visit. For now though, it's time to move on again. Next stop.....Vietnam.
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