Our third class bus to Chiang Mai on Friday morning exceeded our expectations. It was comfortable and air conditioned and only took 4 hours ($4.50 each). Upon arrival in Chiang Mai, we obviously dodged the taxi and tuktuk touts and hopped on the red car (songthaw literally means “two rows” which is a cross between a shared taxi and a pickup truck) which took us right to our hotel ($1.30 each). We checked into Tapae Place, a little rundown, but still great value at $18/night. We set out toward the historic Tapae Gate and just inside the ancient city, found a nice little vegetarian restaurant (glass noodle salad and pumpkin curry – $7 with drinks). We explored the city stopping at a few booking agents to check on our options for the upcoming week and stopped off at the supermarket (surprise, surprise) to pick up some essentials for Shabbat.
Our circuit tour of Chabad houses continued at the Chiang Mai Chabad house. It seemed pretty full, as usual with Israeli travelers, and during the Oneg after dinner, we made friends with a newlywed couple, Alon and Ilan (yay for unisex names) with whom we made plans to hang out with on Saturday night. Shabbat morning was the standard Chabad services and lunch which lasts until about 3pm at which time, we retired to our hotel for a nice nap and some card games until the end of Shabbat. At around 8pm, we met up with our new friends and walked around the night bazaar – four blocks of stalls lining the streets selling everything and anything a tourist might want and two large covered shopping areas complete with food courts and live entertainment. There, we found the best Roti (Banana Nutella Pancake -$1.33) we’ve found yet and then, parked ourselves at Duke’s for a beer and some nachos ( $12.30)- a taste of California was a nice treat.
Needing a little familiar pick-me-up, we began Sunday morning with a visit to the local Starbucks (two coffees and an almond croissant – $10 which we were excited to charge to our American Starbucks card). From there, we walked a sweaty 25 minutes to the train station to purchase tickets for the journey from Bangkok to Koh Samui the following week. Tickets in hand, we hopped a songthaw back to town ($1 each) and went to the Chabad restaurant. We had been dreaming of this schnitzel sandwich and hamburger ($13.50) for weeks and it did not disappoint. We went next door to Rafi, the Israeli travel agent, and booked our activities for the week. From there, we walked to Tapae Gate to experience the Sunday walking street. In order to gather energy for navigating the dense crowds, we stopped at a vegetarian noodle stall toward the front where we enjoyed some Pad See Ew ($1), a coconut ($1.30) and a watermelon shake ($1.30). Recharged, we walked up and down the street purchasing some souvenirs and grabbing an “ancient ice cream” (Felix had Thai iced tea and Jordan had black bean for $1 each). Tired from a day filled with walking, we headed back for the night.
Months ago, when planning our trip, we were very excited that we would have the opportunity to get up close and personal with elephants. We had a sampling in Laos which was a mixed experience and were ready to have the full experience. This time we chose the company very carefully and opted to do a two-day package ($110 each) which included one day of jungle trekking, river rafting and bamboo rafting and a full day of mahout (elephant caretaker) training. The package included meals and accommodations at the Baan Chang (Elephant Home) Camp in a beautiful jungle setting one hour north of Chiang Mai.
We were picked up a few minutes early and scrambled to stash our big bags at the hotel reception before hopping in the back of a songthaw for the hour long journey which was spent eating our breakfast of yogurt and muesli while being bounced up and down along the bumpy road. Four more people joined us during the ride and we made our way to the starting point of our trek. We walked along for an hour admiring impressive spiderwebs and exceedingly tall trees. Finally, we arrived at a waterfall tucked away in the jungle. We’ve seen far more impressive falls throughout the trip, but Felix still enjoyed a dip in the cool pool and dunking his head under the pressure of the water. About half an hour later, we retraced our steps back and stopped for a disappointing lunch of vegetable fried rice and fresh pineapple at a roadside bamboo hut. The second part of the day was much more exciting. Ten minutes down the dirt road was the launch point for river rafting. We donned life jackets and helmets and were issued paddles. We split into groups of three (luckily the Canadian couple didn’t mind splitting up) and after a hilarious briefing jumped into the rafts. Our captain was a 15 year old Thai guy called Nik who spoke a good amount of Hebrew and had a great sense of humor. He piloted us expertly down the river, sometimes paddling, sometimes ducking inside, moving to one side of the raft or the other, and often splash-flighting with other rafts. It was way more fun than we expected and despite low water levels went smoothly and even quickly at times. At the end of the route, still in mid-river, we hopped out of the plastic rafts and onto a classic Thai bamboo raft for the last 15 minutes of slow floating down the river. Standing upright on the bamboo raft our “fearless leader” tipped the raft back and forth, at times so steeply that one of the people in the group fell off into the one meter deep water. Still, she was pissed. We thought it was hilarious, but stifled our laugh out of compassion. Back on land, we drove 20 minutes back to the camp where we were met by Tum, our guide for the next 24 hours. Tum showed us to our cabin and left us to shower and change. The cabin was quite basic, but had a nice enough bathroom (we love the shoilet) and it was cool enough in the evening that we didn’t miss the non-existent a/c. We sat out on the wide covered porch and looked out at the jungle just as a steady drizzle began. Within 5 minutes, the drizzle had become an all-out jungle downpour. Thinking that we have seen this kind of thing before, we sat nonchalantly and watched the rain. An intense crack of thunder and lighting that hit so close by that it knocked out the electricity sent Jordan jumping in the air, and we realized this was indeed no ordinary storm. With no power there was no hot water to be had, and so we retreated to the dry of the cabin to wait out the storm. 20 minutes later blue skies and sun were back and we showered and changed for dinner.
Dinner, which was prepared by Tum himself, was a delicious potato and egg-tofu curry with rice, sautéed cucumber and fresh pineapple. We hung out with Tum during dinner and after dinner, relaxed while laying on the bamboo hammocks. He shared his life story with us, and quite the story it was: drag racing as a teenager in Bangkok to professional car racing, working in the tourist industry in Chiang Mai and finally the last 8 years at the elephant camp. He explained to us that after the rain flying termites come out from underground and swarm around any light they can find. As we watched, the lights were surround by a huge cloud of insects, and we had to escape into the darkness to avoid them. Tum told us not to worry, by 8:30pm they would all be gone, since their wings fall off and they die or crawl back underground. Sure enough, by 8:30pm, they were nowhere to be seen, only piles of wings and termite bodies were left piled on the concrete floor. Very strange. As the thunder and lighting began once more, we ran as fast as we could back to our cabin, just as the second downpour began, and we turned in for the night.
We awoke early the following morning, excited for our day with the elephants. After a simple breakfast, we were joined by 8 others for mahout training which began with a briefing by Tum followed by feeding all the elephants in the park soft bananas. It was such a fun experience to be able to walk up to any elephant and put bananas directly in its mouth. While all the elephants were cute, we were enamored by the baby elephant (3 years old) who gave us each a big wet elephant kiss! She first tickled our cheek with her trunk before locking down on good chunk of cheek and sucking in through her trunk leaving behind a trial of elephant slobber. It was definitely a highlight of the trip.
Next, Tum took us over to a shady bench where he taught us a few commands: Pai = Go, Kweh = this way (used for turning), How = Stop, Naan Long = Lie Down (used for getting on and off). Now, it was our turn to practice. We took turns getting on two elephants (one male and one female) and guiding them around a tree and back to the starting point where we had them lie down so we could hop off these gentle giants. Finally, we were ready to go on the long awaited bareback ride on the elephants through the jungle. Of course, Tum assigned us the rascally elephant and we had quite the adventure. Jordan started off on the neck while Felix rode on the back. Our elephant tried to eat any branch or leaves we passed and was very difficult to control. Jordan attempted to direct the elephant back to the main path, but when an elephant is hungry, a small girl on its back yelling at it, doesn’t do much. Felix realized that holding onto the elephant ‘s back proved difficult and that the sharp hairs on its back did a great job of exfoliating his legs (see all the terms he’s learned from Jordan). After a short break, we switched spots and Felix had a turn trying to control the elephant from the neck. She was such a little rascal – throughout the ride, we watched her eat sugarcane, bamboo, and at one point an entire stalk of bananas which she tried to shove in her mouth all at once. She was a riot!
For our next trick- elephant bathing! This involved following the elephants to the small lake where we scrubbed their backs and poured buckets of water over them. They just laid there and enjoyed the cool water and the attention. This was our way of thanking our elephant for schlepping us around.
After a long day with the elephants, we showered off from the murky water filled with elephant poo and joined our group for lunch. Our veggie lunch was a egg drop soup, tofu stir fry with veggies and pineapple, rice, and more fresh pineapple. We thanked Tum for a wonderful day and climbed aboard the van for the hour ride back to the city. We got back to Tapae Place just in time for it to start pouring again. We waited out the rain in our room and once it stopped, headed out to the night bazaar. We had some Pad See Ew and Green Papaya Salad ($4) for dinner at a local eatery on a side street and then enjoyed a Banana Nutella Roti ($1.33) from the best Roti stand. We sat and ate while we enjoyed a ridiculously touristy performance of Thai dance by two young men clad in brightly colored robes. Full, happy, and still smiling from our elephant experience, we turned in for the night.