Sometimes, just sometimes, I go with the flow. I don’t plan much and I don’t read or educate myself about my destination. This time, the reason was two-pronged. One, the destination was Thailand, where I’d already been a couple of times. I knew about its deep contradictions and stunning beauty and tourism friendliness. Two, a few thoughts weighed on my mind till the night before we left. So apart from the deep research to pick our trek operator a month ago and a couple of days spent studying the Wats, I just hopped on the plane with B and left the rest to serendipity!
Chiang Mai has no trademark Thailand beach, but this little northern provincial capital is home to Thailand’s three highest mountains and has a bunch of beautiful Wats with seriously mammoth Buddhas. Crumbling medieval brick walls stand in places around the old-city while choc-a-bloc main roads encircle them noisily. The rest of the city is an mini-urban sprawl with a beautiful University oblivious to the chaos around it. Chiang Mai is both big and small at the same time, unlike what I had expected. It’s smaller and quainter than Bangkok (in terms of both Wats and traffic), but bigger and more sprawling than Luang Prabang (the other Wats and outdoorsy place I know). The tourist vibe that runs through these eclectic towns is very similar, throbbing with everything in the spectrum from deep local culture to transient swarming tourists, with hip vegan cafes and international cuisine to help this mix along its merry way. Ah, South East Asia. Is this your latest USP template?!
We meandered in and out of about 20 Wats over 2 split days. The city has over 300 to keep the not-watted-out folks amused for days.
Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak is actually part of the east Himalayan range that spills over into Burma and north Thailand. Even as our trek guide pointed out that the distant mountains in the horizon were actually in Burma, a map in the summit museum showed us how eerily close we were to Arunachal Pradesh. Sadly, one can’t climb to the summit of this 8415 ft mountain, there are no trails in the protected forests around it. We could only trek in the national forest surrounding it, and then drive up-to the summit with its pretty pagodas and summit markers. The next day, we cycled in the area to massive Buddhas in villages, quiet monasteries and a waterfall up a hill. What shall I say, cycling uphill was all about pushing my comfort zone in more ways than one!
Trek 1: Wachiratan Waterfalls to Mae Klang Village (~7km, ~3.5hrs): Thanks to our guide, we nibbled on wild berries, chestnuts, bitter bark and also feasted on fresh mango and pineapple for lunch. The trek ended at Mae Klang’s coffee farm where a fresh brew awaited all who trek here by foot or car.
Trek 2: Kew Mae Pan Loop (~3.7km, ~1.5hrs): Close to the summit, this popular trail takes in different parts of the cloud forest; from moss forests to sub-alpine meadows and pretty red rhododendron blooms.
Cycling: Mae Wang to Ban Mae Sa Pok (~38km, ~6.5hrs): Just a few words – wow, and ouch!
To round it all up, I decided to take a Thai cooking class at the very last hour. Another comfort zone push, but at this one I knew I’d be well pampered. I loved every bit of what I was taught and I can’t wait to hit the Thai markets at home to try and replicate it. But that’s another story for another day – if comfort zones that are pushed on vacations translate to expanded boundaries back at home or just remain one for the books ;)
An attempt at conscious travel
After a lot of searching for a trek operator, we zeroed in on Next Step Thailand for our tryst with trekking and cycling in the mountains around Chiang Mai. Apart from supporting locally owned businesses on their tours, they also contribute to projects like Share The Dream which build educational and medical facilities for the Karen and Hmong tribes in remote villages. Their sister eco-lodge is part of Pack For A Purpose which invites material contributions from travellers directly to on the ground projects. Our guide Sam was delightful! He knew practically every type of tree and fashioned bowls made of banana leaf for our mangoes in the forest. He commutes more than an hour a day to get his share of the tourist pie while his family continues to live in a remote village. We loved Sam and his tales. The one piece of feedback we had for Next Step was to switch to reusable water bottles for their guides to replace the plastic ones they now use. In the boondocks of this part of the world, clean drinking water is hard to come by on long day trips, and innovative solutions like filter pens might come handy.
Thank you, The Mellow Pillow, for being SO kind and patient to fill our four water bottles for us every day, sometimes multiple times. We can’t thank you enough, you made our plastic-bottle-free journey possible!
Back in the city, we made our way to a couple of stores which source directly from artisans and farmers. HQ Paper has a zillion varieties of mulberry paper including handmade and recycled, which come in from north of Chiang Mai. Akha Ama Coffee sources directly from local farmers and has a heady orange based concoction that quite surprised us!
Note to self: The next time we go to a stationery shop, just ogle and take photos. Thanks to Do paper in Hanoi and Mulberry paper in Chiang Mai, we now have quite a shop at home!
Our plastic footprint – I must admit, being outdoors for five days in 32 C/92 F without reaching for a cold bottle of something wasn’t easy. But we managed it, at one point filling a bit from our guide’s already open bottle. So, no plastic bottles this time. But I do have to count a few small plastic packets for one takeaway dinner, one utterly delicious “raw chocolate and nuts” brownie and my cooking class goodies that I wanted to bring back for B. Our coffee cups and bamboo straws came in handy a few times. Relatively not too bad, considering this was one of our longer trips. There’s always room to improve ;)
Photo courtesy: B