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Why Chiang Mai Is So Much More Than a Backpacker’s Destination

By Joe Mungo Reed

Jan 28, 2020

From the March/April 2020 issue

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“The street food markets are plentiful and stocked with an endless quantity of exquisite delicacies: spiced sausages, fragrant curries, every fruit one can imagine (and many one can’t).”

Illustration by Ellice Weaver

“The street food markets are plentiful and stocked with an endless quantity of exquisite delicacies: spiced sausages, fragrant curries, every fruit one can imagine (and many one can’t).”

On a last-minute trip, a traveler ponders what would have happened had he taken another path.

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My first evening in Chiang Mai had me considering alternate histories. I was visiting the Sunday Walking Street—a long stretch of closed-off road through the middle of the city’s old center where sellers set up trinket, clothing, and food stalls every week—and I found myself watching three British teenagers haggling with a merchant over a leather bracelet. Chiang Mai is a common stop for Brits on a gap year, a period between high school and university, typically used for travel. Observing the three, I felt sure that they would be arriving at college in the coming months, and I could visualize them wearing tokens from their adventures, such as this bracelet, into their first lectures. Though my freshman experience was nearly a decade and a half in the past, I had lived with similar returned backpackers in my first year of university in Scotland. They pinned colorful photos of beaches to dorm room walls and wore loose cotton shirts and sandals into November. I had also taken a gap year, but I hadn’t left the U.K. Instead, I’d worked as an editorial assistant at a newspaper in London, arriving at college a year later with little more than an understanding of what kerning was and the ability to make a passable cup of tea. I realized, watching these younger men, that I was suddenly in the kind of place I would have visited had I chosen instead to set off around the world. 

This thought was both exciting and disquieting. On the one hand, I had spent some time at college regretting that I hadn’t seen the world as fully as some of my peers, yet on the other, I’d felt that sitting out this travel ritual had given me some perspective on it. My university friends who had been away would compare their adventures in a mechanical sort of way. They’d all been skydiving in New Zealand. They’d all seen Angkor Wat. They’d all been to a full moon party somewhere in the south of Thailand. My dad used to tell a joke about two old friends who have numbered their favorite shared gags, so that rather than speak the punch lines aloud they simply call out, say, Twenty-five! and then laugh together. Conversations I witnessed between backpacking veterans seemed not dissimilar: The qualities of the places they had visited were lost in the act of checking off itineraries against each other. I found some reassurance, I suppose, in the assumption that the experiences I had missed out on were not so rare, so pure. And yet in the market I realized that I had allowed this notion to color my view of whole areas of the world. There was a reason I had not chosen to visit Thailand. Subconsciously, I’d written the country off as a gap year kind of place, discounted things friends might have done here as obvious. Without being sent to Thailand by AFAR, I thought, I would have taken a long time to get around to visiting. Yet here I was, with a whole week ahead of me to test my prejudices. 

Not being a teenage backpacker, I felt it my right to pass on zip-lining and quad biking. However, I was keen to challenge my newly identified preconceptions about what Thailand had to offer.

Chiang Mai’s historic downtown is a walled square, a bit more than a mile across, streets gridded through it unevenly like cracks in a shattered tile. Beautiful Buddhist temples are spaced with the regularity of telephone poles. The street food markets are plentiful and stocked with an endless quantity of exquisite delicacies: spiced sausages, fragrant curries, every fruit one can imagine (and many one can’t). Yet much of Chiang Mai’s appeal lies in what can be done beyond the city limits. It is a place of embarkation for farther-flung adventures. Nearly as common as temples are tour agencies, usually offering a roster of activities: elephant sanctuary trips, quad bike rides, zip-line adventures, jungle treks. 

Not being a teenage backpacker, I felt it my right to pass on zip-lining and quad biking. However, I was keen to challenge my newly identified preconceptions about what Thailand had to offer. I signed up to see elephants and to take a trek. 

I was most struck by the scale of tourism in Chiang Mai when I left for my first day trip to an elephant sanctuary. Most excursions include a free minibus ride from guests’ hotels. These vehicles move through the tight streets, collecting their passengers, then turn south, out of town, toward open countryside and mountains. On my way to see the elephants, I scanned the traffic in the compact city center and noted with a certain vertigo the number of gray minivans like the one I traveled in. We were some mechanical breed of migrating creature, emerging from cover to stream across a plain in great numbers. 

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The crowded market for elephant encounters makes booking a tour a vexed business. Guidebooks to the region stress the cruelties of tours on which people ride elephants and warn against patronizing companies that breed in captivity or put on shows for which the animals have been trained to perform circus tricks. Many tour companies conspicuously brand their operations as sanctuaries or rescue programs, though the extent to which this is a genuine mission rather than an attempt to follow the market is often hard to ascertain. I’d spent some time on hotel Wi-Fi the night before, trying to gain a perspective on different tours from online reviews. By the wearying end of my research, I felt that I was in a microcosm of the internet as a whole. I was amidst an admirable clamor to suss out what was right and true, always undercut by the suspicion that some part of the discourse (including my own) was motivated by participants’ desire to prove themselves uniquely discerning. 

I’d settled eventually on a trip called “Elephant Serenity.” The location was farther from the city than some of the other options, amidst farmland and beneath ridgelines thick with native forest. Once out of the gray bus, I waited in a yard with six other people: a Belgian couple, an Irish couple, and two architects from London. The elephants were led to a stop behind bamboo barriers, and we fed them sugarcane and bananas. Then we walked with them through a portion of jungle and down to a river, where they bathed and we tourists were encouraged to wade in and splash the elephants with water. I stood in the water, my feet sinking into the warm mud of the riverbed, and scooped handfuls of water toward the elephants. They seemed to enjoy this, though part of my pleasure in being with the elephants was their inscrutability. They were unique in their embodiment: It was not just their size, but the way they used their trunks to select the tastiest bits of food through a combination of smell and tactile investigation performed with the dexterous tip of muscle above their nostrils. The most fulfilling encounters I have had with animals have not been those that allowed me to identify with the creatures’ behaviors but those that revealed the dissimilarities between their perceptions of the world and my own. Perhaps this in itself is reason to not want to see these animals serving human aims, used as transport or taught to do tricks. To watch the elephants move through the jungle—the way they pushed through the trees, the way they used their trunks to investigate the world above and ahead of them—was to glimpse comprehension of the environment well beyond my human perspective. 

I do want my traveling to be ecological, and as unobtrusive as possible for the populations of the places I see. Yet doubtless there is ego in such a wish: that same desire to distinguish oneself from others through diligence. 

As we left the river, another group of elephants and tourists arrived at the opposite side of the river. They were with a different tour operation, our guide explained. We watched them approach the water. One of that group’s guides was using a stick to direct an elephant down the bank. We tourists shared in murmurs the comforting idea that our elephants seemed happier. 

The next day, I found myself in that same tourist migration out of town. I was going on a jungle hike with a company called Pooh Eco Trekking. I sat in a familiar-looking minibus with a guide, a driver, and six French teachers who were taking an extended holiday in Southeast Asia. We passed the place where yesterday’s bus had turned off the road for the elephant sanctuary, passed other elephant camps beyond that. We drove into the mountains for another hour. At times the road steepened drastically and the engine of the vehicle whined like an insect. Pooh Eco Trekking markets itself as alternative to other tourist hikes: Its trips are more remote, the website suggests, and the things you encounter—flora, fauna, hill tribes—more authentically undisturbed. I was receptive to this pitch, hoping, I suppose, that although I was joining another minibus migration of tourists out of town, the activity was serious enough to set us apart from the mass of visitors. I do want my traveling to be ecological, and as unobtrusive as possible for the populations of the places I see. Yet doubtless there is ego in such a wish: that same desire to distinguish oneself from others through diligence. 

We stopped in a village on the outskirts of Doi Inthanon National Park. Our guide introduced himself as Mr. P. He told us he was 66, around the same age as the king of Thailand. Unlike myself and the French teachers, Mr. P. was not dressed in technical hiking gear. Instead, he wore a pair of flip-flops, khaki shorts, and a button-down shirt. He spoke a kind of rambling English that was occasionally hard to follow. He smoked cigarettes, a pack emblazoned with a health warning and a cautionary photo of gums receding from yellow teeth. Whoever had designed this warning was not counting on Mr. P., however, whose frequent smiles revealed only a single upper incisor. 

We walked into the jungle followed by three stray dogs from the village. Mr. P. had befriended them, he explained, while guiding weekly hikes out of the village. He’d spent 10 years as a Buddhist monk, and this experience had endowed him with a great sympathy for animals, born of his belief that he’d passed lifetimes in other forms. For those strays he’d failed to befriend, he carried a slingshot in his back pocket. 

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We walked for a couple of hours, pausing to look at flora: wild lemongrass, tamarind, some tree bark that one could apparently make tea from. At one point, Mr. P. headed off trail to find a turtle, the dogs crashing excitedly through the undergrowth behind him. He returned 10 minutes later empty-handed and uncharacteristically crestfallen. 

Soon, we stopped at a waterfall. Mr. P. spent a long time making a fire on which to grill chicken that he had carried into the jungle in an enormous backpack along with packets of Knorr chicken seasoning powder. He explained that in the dry season he would lead longer treks, but in the wet season it was better to keep things short. I asked whether this was because of mud. Not only, he told me. He pointed to a patch of blood under his left armpit, which had appeared after his search for the turtle. “Leeches,” he said. 

After lunch, Mr. P. wrapped the leftover chicken in a banana leaf. He pointed us to the trail, and we set off walking again. Mr. P. brought up the rear of the group. We crossed a river by walking along the length of a fallen tree. I looked back at the sexagenarian Mr. P. negotiating this far more gracefully than I or the teachers had managed. He held the wrapped chicken in one hand, a cigarette in the other. In his flip-flops and open shirt, he looked less the wilderness guide than a man picking his way home from brunch. 

The trek finished with a downpour, our group hurrying back to the village and the waiting minibus. We’d probably only hiked four miles. It felt a short way to have walked, given the drive, though such brevity is probably the nature of day hikes. Could we have coped with a longer, muddier route and leeches? Could Mr. P. have counted on us coping? Mr. P. opened the banana leaf and fed the remaining chicken to the dogs. We got into the van and started back to the city. 

“As I made my way back into the suburbs of the city, I asked myself why I hadn’t just ridden a bike every day of my trip.”

On my last day in Chiang Mai, I rented a road bike from a small bike shop near the southern walls of the old town. The bike was battered but serviceable, the bar tape sticky with the sweat of previous users. Having negotiated the tight knit of old streets, I found my way onto the main route out of town. I rode as fast as I could, to keep pace with the scooters that monopolized the slowest lane. The familiar gray minibuses moved past me on the right. At the third set of lights I encountered, I turned out of the press of traffic, away from the minibuses and onto a narrower highway—not the route I had traveled in days before, but a much quieter road into the mountains above the city. 

I settled on the saddle, began to pick up a pedaling rhythm. There were resorts along the side of the road, but their frequency decreased as I gained altitude. In the villages, dogs snoozed in the shade or sniffed around the edge of the road. I passed a glistening white temple on a hillside, a couple of waterfalls. The road climbed more steeply for a while and then pitched down into a valley of rice paddies. Forested peaks rose beyond them, mist drifting above the foliage. 

The cyclist’s freedom is granted by the faith that the road ahead holds greater excitement than the diversions at its edge.

I rode on, and the frequency of settlements decreased further. The road began to ascend again, and rice paddies gave way, once more, to jungle. I kept on until my water ran out, then turned back toward the city.

In many ways this ride was my most purely pleasurable activity in Thailand. It was a joy to move through the landscape at my own pace, to follow the road and take in the sights it brought.

As I made my way back into the suburbs of the city, I asked myself why I hadn’t just ridden a bike every day of my trip. Yet I concluded that this was too simple a reaction. In an indirect way, my ride was made possible by what I had done in the days before. Much of the pleasure of cycling is in bypassing the world: in this case, pedaling on past trailheads, wildlife parks, entrances to temples. The cyclist’s freedom is granted by the faith that the road ahead holds greater excitement than the diversions at its edge. To have seen the elephants and the jungle was not just to have experienced those things but also to feel justified in moving past the “must do” list.

There was some clue in this, I thought, of how to view all the young travelers glancing their way through the country. I thought of the teenagers I’d seen in the market on my first night in the city. Did I feel I’d missed out on their kind of activities? No. But perhaps I missed having done them. We are all new to a place once. To have seen the typical sights of a country is to gain the freedom, later, to see the more unusual ones. If I ever returned to Chiang Mai, I thought, I’d call Mr. P. and ask him to take me on a long trip in the high country (leeches be damned), or I’d do a multiday cycling route. Perhaps I’d try to see elephants in the wild. With traveling, as with so many things in life, one must first muddle through. The point is to come to realize what you really want from a place.

>>Plan your trip with AFAR’s Guide to Chiang Mai

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