The last part of our Thailand trip - this time without our best friend Ufoby - was the North of the country. It's a bit less explored and doesnt really attract the all-inclusive/all-permitted types of tourists (probably because the climate is not tropic and there is no seaside) The North primarily attracts more adventurous backpackers, NGOs, environmentalists, anthropology lovers, hippies and generally those who like to travel off the beaten path.
Chiang Mai is easy to travel to and is really chill, it's main neighborhood is the historic centre which is very easy to identify as it's surrounded by perfect square shape city walls (or remainders of those) It might seem that it's confusing to navigate inside the square at first, because the streets are commonly called Soi + a number and they are winding, but the centre is so small that after a day you know pretty much every part of it. Accommodation can be found inside the square, but cheaper options are commonly located just outside its Southeast side - just walk around and watch the signs. We paid $10 for a decent room with a fan, $16-18 will get you a really nice room with AC in the very centre. There are tons of nice cafes and eateries, plenty of choices for vegetarians and vegans, many hipster looking places - explore the winding streets and you'll find many gems. There are many expats who live and work in Chiang Mai, so the activities for the visitors are many - from nature conservation to yoga to music classes - look for the booklets or posters at cafes, all those activities and events are usually circle around in the form of little paper flyers.
One of the main attractions of Chiang Mai besides being the paradise for non standard tourists are its markets. The main one is just outside the centre (about 10 min walking) - its a bit smaller than Chatuchak in Bangkok, but the prices for the same stuff drop dramatically. There are clothes, bags, accessories, arts, crafts, shoes, really anything you can imagine you would want to bring home from Thailand. In Chinatown which is also just a bit outside of the centre there is a market for locals - no crafts or arts, but good bargains for clothes (if you find a size that fits you :)) and of course - street food - thats an experience on its own. We got to be there during a popular Sunday market in on the central street of the historic town - thats where you can buy really cool clothes and accessories designed and made by local designers - from hipster belts to handmade notebooks to oceans of really cool earrings :) There are a couple of areas North of the historic centre where there are markets and designers stores - just ask in your hostel for directions.
Another great activity Chiang Mai offers is the opportunity to donate to elephant conservation projects by buying a visit to one of the parks. It's pretty expensive (about $80 pp) but the organizations are very straightforward about that - it's expensive not because of the tour itself, but because it's your donation and the tour is what they can give you in return for your donation.
We chose Elephant Nature park - rescue and rehabilitation centre about 2 hours outside of Chiang Mai located in a beautiful valley where the elephants have miles and miles of natural landscape available for them. The story of the elephants there and the founder of the centre Lek moved us and as we experienced it later it was the right thing to spend the money on. The visit includes the transport, meeting the elephants, participating in feeding and bathing in the river, following some of the leisure time of the elephants, a buffet meal and watching a documentary about how the elephants are used for work and entertainment of the tourists.
Each elephant there is a rescued one and has his own story. These stories should be a message to all those who want to have an elephant ride in Asia. In order for one to be able to ride an elephant the elephant has to be trained which means breaking his spirit at a very young age so that this wild animal becomes submissive. Breaking the spirit procedure is a very cruel experience for an elephant and those who are more stubborn than others suffer a lot - from poking its body with sharp nails, dragging it tied up on the ground to poking out their eyes and breaking their limbs as punishment. Many elephants in the park are blind, blind because their eyes were poked out because thats the definite way to make an elephant insecure and thus timid. It's hard to grasp all this, but when you see how these rescued animals are treated in the park, your faith in humanity gets at least partially restored.
All the time spent with the elephants is a beautiful experience. You can feed them by hand - putting bananas, melons, watermelons, cabbage, pineapples, zucchinis, carrots in their mouths and for the blind ones carefully collaborating with them to help them find the food in your hands by directing their trunks. You can have a bath with them in the river - when the water is low you'll need to use buckets of water to wash them. You can get to know them really closely, but not all of them since some are still very traumatized to let anyone close besides their keepers. It's a very eye opening experience and the opportunity to be so close to these majestic animals in the role of someone who honors their natural state rather than trying to ride them or make them do tricks is unforgettable.
Chiang Mai is a very cool place to be and it's also a gateway to Pai - Thailand's hippie capital, and also a gateway to go see the tribes of the North by the Chinese, Laos and Burmese border. It's interesting to visit their villages and see the diversity of those tribes. For some, a bigger attraction there is to go see the Opium triangle - area around those borders where opium was a major thing some time ago (and still is in many cases)
So yeah - don't forget the North when visiting Thailand.