Touching down in Chiang Mai, we were greeted with a big tourist desk that advertised exactly what we had come to Northern Thailand to do, take care and play with giants – elephants of course. Prior to the trip, we had read about the cruelty that elephants suffer from tourists ridding on their backs so instead of heading to a riding camp, we opted for an elephant sanctuary. After some extra research to make sure that the elephants were not only treated fairly but that the money went back towards the elephants, we booked a tour for the next morning with Jungle Elephant Sanctuary.
We arrived at our hostel, Sunday Backpackers early enough to get settled, explore and find some tasty food just in time to go to a real Thai fight (considering that our last boxing ring experience was a drunken tourist brawl). Chiang Mai is laid out in a square and inside the square is a mix of upscale cafes, a plethora of vegetarian restaurants and dotted with pagodas. Most alleyways in Chiang Mai were packed with street vendors or parked motorbikes. We ventured to a Lonely Planet recommended vegetarian restaurant in one of the far corners of Chiang Mai city outskirts. We arrived to find a closed sign, a familiar sight along our trip so far. We would read about a place, get really excited about it, navigate our way there, only to find that it was closed for the hour or day that we decided to visit.
Bummed but still hungry, we ventured further to the night market on the outskirts of the Chiang Mai city square. Arriving to a night market is always a culinary adventure – from mango sticky rice in Phuket to Hianese Chicken in Singapore, tasty food finds are always found in night markets. We weaved our way through food stalls selling Northern noodles and rice to papaya salads and pad Thai. We heard about papaya salad since arriving in Thailand and figured, now was as good of a time as any to test out the famous dish. When we got to the night market, we both dug in, it was sweet, spicy and tart all at the same time. About half way through the dish, we realized that it was cold. In all of the guidebooks, on the CDC website, travel blogs and just from our friends’ advice, we were warned against eating cold food, especially from a street vendor. We both panicked but figured we were too deep into the dish to be saved by the food gods. Most food poisoning takes about an hour to trigger your brain that you might get violently ill so we set a timer for 8pm, roughly the same time that the Thai fight was supposed to start and hoped for the best.
Judging each fart, gurgle and burp coming out of our bodies, we headed to the boxing ring. Each of the spectators (made up of 3/4s tourists and the other 1/4 Thai) was handed a flier with descriptions of each of the fights scheduled for the night (the fights were organized by weight class with the smallest weight class 107 pounds at the top). The flier also promised that all of the fighters were real Thai boxers and the last fight was promised to be a title fight. An energy ran through the crowd as the host (in English and Thai) announced that the fight was about to begin and introduced our first two fighters. Two boys who looked no older than eight walked onto the stage. All of the tourists went dead silent while the Thai side of the audience (which we guessed consisted mostly of parents, now that we thought about it…) cheered loudly. We watched with our mouths agape as these kids took swings at each other for three long rounds. It dawned on us that the weight classes on our brochure were all too little to be adults. These kids were extraordinarily talented though!
Almost each round ended in a knockout and one of the most brutal fights was between two girls. The two were the only two fighters to leave the judges to make a technical decision. For an intermission show, seven blindfolded fighters entered the ring and took jabs at each other (they were still better than the drunk fights in Phi Phi). The final fight was indeed a title fight between a French fighter and Thai fighter. The whole experience made us realize how unfit we were as children and how we would most likely be overprotective parents. As we walked home, we high-fived acknowledging our luck in narrowly escaping explosive diarrhea and vomiting.
That night (after being disturbed by a domestic argument the night before) we set our alarms for 4 AM in the morning to catch the sunrise we had missed in Phuket. After guaranteeing that our motorbike could make the uphill journey we set off into the night. Both of our pits started to sweat is the journey uphill became steeper and steeper. After an hour on the road winding up and down, we made it to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, the best sunrise temple according to TripAdvisor. When we arrived, the only other people at the temple were monks. We searched for the ticket booth to pay our entrance fee and decided that it was probably too early for people to start collecting money instead we snuck into the temple to find an ideal place to watch (and time lapse) the sunrise. We quickly discovered why it was so highly rated on TripAdvisor. From the top of the temple we watched the sun inch slowly up the horizon while we listened to monks ringing their prayer bells behind us.
On the way back from the temple (as the day was just beginning to start) we stopped into a few of the temples (wats) that Chiang Mai was known for. Each temple was a little bit different than the last one but most had one thing in common, lots of roosters. One temple had over a hundred rooster statues adorning its grounds. As we approached the walled city on our bike to get back to our hostel, the traffic began to slow and we almost came to a stop. We figured that it must just be rush hour for the people who still had jobs but as we got closer we noticed that a policeman was directing traffic around something. That something, as we found out later was a man whose body lay mangled in the street next to his motorcycle. Thankfully, Ross was focused on driving the bike so he did not see that the man’s helmetless head was laying in a pool of blood and his chin was in the position of his nose. Natalie on the other hand will not forget the scene as a constant reminder of how dangerous these bikes were.
After returning the bikes, we met back at the hostel for our elephant adventure! We climbed onto benches in the back of a truck and drove an hour and a half to our elephant encounter! Our guide, who had been in the elephant business (his grandfather used them to help with farm work and his father worked at a riding camp) explained the evolution of elephants in Thailand and also informed us that elephants spines were not meant to carry loads of weight on their backs but on their stomachs. All of the elephants at the sanctuary had been rescued from riding or logging camps. From what we could tell, they were happy, one was even pregnant!
We spent the next few hours feeding the elephants sugarcane and bananas. The little elephants were so small that we had to peel the bananas for them and the big elephants were so big that they would see the bananas behind our backs and grab the bananas from us before we had a chance to stop them. After the cheeky elephants were full we moved to the mud. Surprisingly the mud was a cool relief after all of the sweaty feeding and the elephants splashed and played while we gave them mud spa treatments. While we were splashing around with the elephants we tried not to think of all the poop that might be splashing around with us. After lunch we hopped back on the truck with our tummies and hearts full. It was one of the best wild animal experiences of the trip so far.