It took me a few days to recover and even once I felt able to venture out we still took it slow. We spent one day walking alongside the water surrounding the city on our way to Kad Suan Kaew shopping centre for a browse and afterwards both treated ourselves to a half hour Shoulder and Back massage by Thai women on chairs just outside the centre for 80 baht (£1.60) each. I was expecting it to be relaxing but, my goodness, do they have strength in their fingers and elbows; at one point the pain was do excruciating it felt as though my nerves were being electrocuted and, at another, when she was doing some weird massage to my shoulder I could feel the nerves being stimulated in my fingers. Definitely one of the more painful massage experiences I have had but also one of the most satisfying; I could literally feel every knot in my back being popped and ironed out and, afterwards, I felt like I had new shoulder blades. To continue the torture, after dinner we went for a Fish Foot Spa where tiny little fish swarm your feet to bite off the dead skin. It was ridiculously ticklish – you would find yourself getting used to the feeling to then have a fish go where no other fish had ever been and you would squeal with delighted laughter – but weirdly enjoyable (I love my feet being played with) and for only 60 baht (£1.20) for 15 minutes it was definitely worth doing.
There’s a lot to do around Chiang Mai and a lot of tours that offer to take you there for a price, however many things are easy to get to yourself if you rent a scooter. To make sure we were getting something safe we hired ours through our hostel and paid 250 baht (£5) for one that fit two people for 24 hours. They provide a small amount of gasoline but you have to top up your own – we put in 100 baht and this gave us about 5-6 hours of riding, returning our moped with just enough left in there. As they do not refund you for any gasoline left over, it’s worth considering this when you fill up – we rode to Mae Sa Waterfall, then to the Grand Canyon and back to our hostel TWICE (that’s right, we did the EXACT SAME JOURNEY twice as the first time round w got lost and arrived at both places too late to actually go in) so you could easily do this route on 50 baht, but just riding around Chiang Main on a moped is so much fun (and such an easy, common way of getting around) that I would recommend making more if it anyway.
Now, I have never ridden a moped before in my life. The closest I have come to it is a bicycle. And I was pretty nervous before I got on it, especially knowing I was also responsible for someone else’s life and that we’d be riding on their main roads going 60/70 mph. And admittedly I was a bit ropey when I first started, but then I really got into it and absolutely loved it (Marie, if you are reading this, I felt like Jonathan Switcher from the Mannequin!) I’m even going to take a moment for some self-affirmation here (which I realise is not as socially accepted in Western society as self-deprecation is, but we really do need to offer it to ourselves once in a while just to quieten our inner critical voice) and say I was actually pretty good at it and maybe, just maybe, I’m a fast learner. Whether that be at driving a car (*cough* passed first time), playing Guitar Hero or riding a moped, perhaps my “thing” is that I pick stuff up quickly (except for playing instruments, which I am just appalling at – I have no musical bone in my body, despite hitting it hard with the recorder for years). It was at this moment, however, when I started to feel the hints of pride and joy you get when you feel you’re doing well at something you are enjoying, that I momentarily forgot how to actually ride a moped and almost ran over a security guard. Having taken the wrong road and ending up at the security check point for accessing the airport, I tried to do a u-turn but ended up careering towards the security guard instead. My brain said “press the brake” but my body kept pushing the accelerator, to the point where the security guard hard to leap out of the way so I hit the orange bollard instead of him. I apologised profusely and sped away as fast as I could, before fits of laughter took over the both of us.
Mae Sa Waterfall is approximately a 30 minute drive/ride from Chiang Mai old city. Heading north on the 107, you pass by the turning for the 121 and take a left at the 1096, which really isn’t signposted as this and the sign saying “Mae Sa Waterfall” as you approach is such a small sign and literally appears just before the road, so look out for the sign to Sansuang and take the left here. You then ride for another 10 minutes or so down winding roads until you see the sign for the waterfall on your left. It’s 100 baht entrance fee per person and 20 baht for parking a moped – note that it closes at 4pm, but this was in low season so it may differ at other times of the year. You can spend half hour walking up the various points of the waterfall and it is really peaceful and there is a lot of nature, but it is not the most spectacular waterfall we have seen (but we have seen the Gulfoss in Iceland!)
Thailand’s answer to the Grand Canyon can be accessed from Mae Sa by going back onto the 107 where you came off and the joining the 121 by turning right at signs for Hang Dong. You stay on the 121 for a while, passing the sign for the 108 to Chiang Mai, passing the entrance to Hang Dong Golf Course on your left 10 minutes later and then taking the right across the bridge after. You follow this road round, and all the signs, to reach the Grand Canyon.
There is ample parking for mopeds and cars to the left and the entrance to the Grand Canyon is on the right – entrance is 50 baht per person (£1) and it closes at 5pm (again, at least that’s the case during low season). The lake at the bottom of the canyon is approximately 10 metres down from the top (the water level, anyway) and there is a point at which people can jump into the water from the top. Crowds surround to watch and take photos and we were short of time so chose not to jump, instead walking down the slope on the other side and swimming in to one of the many scattered bamboo rafts. Good weather-permitting, it is a chilled and cool way to spend the afternoon.
To ride back to Chiang Mai you go back the way you came for about 10 minutes before taking a right down the 121, then 5 minutes later taking a left onto the 108 and continuing until you reach the city walls. We rode back at night on one of our journeys from the Canyon and, due to the street lamps, were periodically pelted in the face by moths – I say in the face, but also the chest, the neck, the stomach… Our helmets didn’t come complete with visor, so I’d recommend wearing some sort of glasses/eye shield for riding a moped around Chiang Mai!
On our final full day in Chiang Mai we decided to go with a tour to visit elephants, go bamboo rafting, hike to a waterfall and visit a local village. Mostly we like to do things independently so we can take our own time and discover/explore on our own but with the different things we wanted to do and the cost involved of seeing elephants we decided to go with a tour. The bamboo water rafting was peaceful and enjoyable (despite the sudden downpour, the man rafting the bamboo sang as we went along and continued despite cutting his finger on snapped bamboo) and the unnamed waterfall was a refreshing break in stunning scenery after walking through the mountains.
The highlight for me, however, would hands-down be the time we spent with an elephant (a female, whom I shall call Nelly for obvious reasons). We met her under a bamboo cover where we got to spend some time getting to know her (stroking her head and the top of her trunk, which feels like really tough and wrinkled leather) and feeding her bamboo and bananas, which they eat whole with the skin still on. You can feed them either by putting the food directly to their mouths (they don’t have teeth) or by putting it near the spout (??) of the trunk, where they will then curve their trunk round to clasp the food and throw it into their mouths. It’s fascinating to watch and weirdly endearing.
Afterwards we walked down to the river and watched Nelly make her way into the river before dropping her legs and sitting in it. We then made our way into the river beside her and began to clean her with damp bark (an equivalent to a sponge) and wash down with water from the river. We were told we could sit on her back to be able to clean her better and reach her head, so after a moments hesitation (will I hurt her, will I be safe, will there be a buckaroo moment?) I clambered on and began cleaning her back and her head. About 5 minutes in she decided she’d ad enough of sitting and stood up there and then, with me realising what was happening in just enough time to hold on. It was glorious being sat up high on her back as she waded through the water, before deciding promptly that she wished to sit once more. I was pleased just to be able to remain on her back the whole time.
After I slid off her back (literally) and Jason started to wash her, she chose this moment to tip sideways and roll over in the water. He managed to sit on her for a while before she again stood up to walk around, but she wasn’t so graceful with sitting back down and practically threw him off her back (unintentionally, of course). Elephants are big, calm, fascinating creatures and I fell in love with them pretty quickly.
On our last evening I had a local dish of Khao Soi (almost a curried broth with egg noodles and chicken, topped with fried noodles – DELICIOUS), we had some drinks sat on the grass by the city walls before heading to a nearby rooftop bar to take in the city before our 9am minivan for 170 baht each (£3.40) to Pai the next day, which we booked with one of the many travel agents around CM that afternoon. Despite already being behind schedule we chose to detour to Pai as we had heard wonderful things about it…