A Day with Elephants

Do you like elephants? Well, you’d sure better, because in this post, I’ve finally gotten around to winnowing my 300+ photos (plus action cam vids!) from my visit to Elephant Nature Park down to a discreet 70-something. I still have plenty to blah-blah-blah about in this post, but let me just say that the this visit was everything I’d hoped for and more. If you are interested in interacting with elephants in an environment that is focused first on the well-being of these wonderful creatures, this is the place for you.

So, our guide for the day, Ging, showed up at my hotel as scheduled and I piled into the van with, at that point, one other couple. At our next stop, the first person to board looked quite familiar to me. “You were sitting in front of me on the flight from SFO to Tokyo, weren’t you?” Answer in the affirmative – this was Jodie, traveling with her step-daughter Katie (on a break from teaching English to school children in Korea). As it turned out, not only were we geographical neighbors in the Bay Area, our respective itineraries had much in common. The two of them had just done the cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School and declared it a rollicking success – it was good to hear, as my own class was coming up later in the week. After our tour wrapped up, the three of us had a nice dinner together (making friends with several resident kittens at the restaurant!) back in CM.

We continued to pick up other folks and the van filled up – kind of a surprise to me, given that October is still the tail end of low season and the other tours I’d been on were rather sparsely populated it seemed. On the halfway point of our journey to Elephant Nature Park, we stopped for a bathroom break and there were probably 20 similarly populated vans, all on their way to the same destination. Another surprise – I was a little concerned about what this would mean in terms of crowds at our destination. But thanks to a large parcel of land and an extremely well-run program for visitors, our tour that day was extraordinarily intimate and with little overlap with other folks at the park.

Anyway, we arrived at our destination, clambered out of the van and there were three gorgeous elephants hanging out in the grass. Seeing a group of easy marks for bananas and watermelons, they made their way toward us immediately. It was really quite remarkable that literally the moment we arrived, we were interacting with elephants. I was also pleased at how relaxed it was. I’ll be honest – large animals can be a scary to be around. But these gentle old ladies (all in their 60s and 70s) seemed pretty content to scarf up the food we had to offer and were clearly used to being around tourists. Of course, our guide and the mahouts were close at hand to make sure nobody got trampled…

From there, we and our new elephant friends ambled along toward the river – most of us visitors attempting to master taking photographs while also feeding our rather demanding companions who knew exactly what was in those bags we were carrying (bananas… sooo many delicious bananas…). And we all adjusted fairly quickly to the fact that one winds up covered with rather a lot of elephant saliva when feeding them.

I have to say, touching the elephants was amazing – most especially so when they were grabbing food from your hands with their trunks. It was fantastic to see exactly how both agile and delicate those trunks are – not to mention how incredibly strong.

At the river, we forded on foot, humans and animals alike, and continued our trek up into the hills a bit. As I got used to the idea of chilling with elephants, I finally noticed how really beautiful the setting was. We were surrounded by tree-covered hills, the sky bright blue with fluffy white clouds. And from the hillside, we had great views of the river and the rest of the sanctuary, seeing other small groups of elephants in the distance.

A stop for lunch, a simple vegetarian spread that was that special kind of delicious that goes with a healthy appetite after a good hike. We all got to know each other a little better – it was a fun mix of Yanks, Brits and Aussies in our particular group.

After lunch, we headed back down to the river along a different path, though we crossed at the same place. Once across, we got buckets (and more watermelons!) to give our elephant friends a nice soaking, followed by a group photo.

Once back to where we started, we piled back into our van – though not before I took the opportunity to purchase what is likely to be my most cherished memento from my visit to Thailand, a small elephant carving, made by one of the mahouts. Not only does this little guy have a ton of personality, but like each of the carvings for sale, he is based on one of the local residents – in this case, a handsome fellow called Banyen.

For some reason, I’d forgotten that the particular program I was enrolled in – “Pamper a Pachyderm” (IKR?) – included a raft trip. And this was in spite of the fact that Ging, our extremely personable and knowledgeable guide, had mentioned it repeatedly – though he’d also been quick to pull  my leg about a couple of things, so I thought this was just him ribbing another camera-laden city slicker.

Anyway, it was no joke! Which was fine… but I suppose I imagined a gentle ride down the river while I sipped a cocktail. Well, it was a bit more athletic than that (and required me to don a highly unflattering life jacket! And to paddle!), but it was a super-fun trip down a mostly gentle river, with a couple of small but exciting rapids.

Our raft trip ended at ENP HQ, home to the main lodge along with all of the various support facilities, like the kitchen, vet, etc. This is also where we met lots and lots of wonderful dogs and cats who reside at ENP – and who are for the most part ready to be adopted.

We spent the rest of our time observing a couple of groups of elephants, one including a toddler who happily played with his tire and frolicked in the river while his adoptive moms bathed. Wrapped things up with a beer in the lodge before heading back into Chiang Mai.

I can’t recommend Elephant Nature Park highly enough. They do a really amazing job looking after their resident elephants and their programs for visitors are well-organized and provide a truly memorable experience. All of the staff appear to be really engaged with the organization’s mission and to care deeply about the elephants in the park – and they are certainly a huge part of what made this day so special. A superb highlight of my visit to Thailand.


Here’re a few excerpts from my head-mounted action cam. It’s a little Blair-Witchy, so if you’re prone to motion sickness, maybe skip it. But I hope it gives at least some sense of exactly how up-close visitors get to interact with the elephants. I know I keep using the word, but it was really quite amazing.

And here’s a bit of rafting!

Back to Bangkok

Monday and it was time to say “farewell” to Chiang Mai as I headed back to Bangkok. Flight back left a bit late and, after last week’s delightful 777 flight from BKK, it was a bit of a let-down to be on boring old A320. But other than that, a fast and uneventful flight and cab ride to my digs for the next week, the Sofitel So.

Well! This place was pretty deluxe. I was whisked up to the lobby on the 9th floor, overlooking Lumphini Park and smelling delightfully of lemongrass. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of fragrances pumped into public spaces, but literally every time I passed through the lobby during my stay, I’d say to myself, “God, this place smells fantastic!”

Since standing at a front desk waiting to check in is SO gauche, guests are seated in the lobby and served a refreshing (though sadly booze-free) drink while one of the hotel’s workers (outfitted in fanciful-but-still-charming uniforms designed by – I shit you not – Christian Lacroix. Lacroix, sweetie, Lacroix!) verifies the reservation and presents the paperwork for one’s stay. Once this is all squared away, one is led up to one’s room – each one themed to represent the hotel’s “elements” of Wood, Metal, Water and Earth. I had chosen Wood (obviously!) and was quite happy with the spacious quarters and the view overlooking Bangkok – though sadly, I did not get the park view. In fact, I asked about this while checking in and was told that it wasn’t included in the rate I was paying – which is fair enough! – but I was surprised I wasn’t either offered an opportunity to pay for an upgrade or somewhat subtler message about my cheap-ass, no-park-view room (e.g. “Unfortunately, those rooms are already booked.”). This was certainly not a big deal – but over the course of my stay there (and which I’ll discuss in future posts), it was clear that the hotel still has some work to do to become the five-star hotel they claim to be. I’d give it a sold four-stars – which is an excellent place to stay! – but there were a variety of minor misses throughout my stay that show there’s room for improvement.

ANYWAY, after getting settled (i.e. unpacking, then folding and hanging all of my clothes – so satisfying!), my new Thai friend Ak came by so we could get some dinner. Of course, before we could do that, I’d elicited his help in locating a laundry nearby, so I could get my unmentionables cleaned (the hotels rate was THB150 per pair – that’s over $4.00! For each pair of underpants! And don’t even ask about t-shirts!) So, off I traipsed through my fancy lobby in shorts and flip-flops with a bag of dirty laundry slung over my shoulder, just like the the fancy and elegant person that I am – with Ak kindly pointing out that I looked like a low-rent Santa Claus. It was a short-ish schlep in 90° weather with high humidity, so we were both drenched by the time we reached the laundry – and read the sign out front that they are only open from noon to 5:00 (this was at about 5:45). What kind of a business model is that?!

So, Ak located another laundry close by on Google Maps – which led us to a parking lot. The next place we found seemed OK – save for the fact they were closing for three days, meaning my clothes wouldn’t be ready ‘til Saturday (this was on Monday!). The next place said Thursday! Though happily, she also pointed us to another place around the corner and down an alleyway that would probably be faster. And, lo and behold, we found it. It took us awhile, but my clothes were ready the next afternoon – and my drawers were folded so expertly, I may have to adopt this method when folding them myself…

Needless to say, by this time I was not only famished but in truly desperate need of a beer. As requested, Ak took me to one of his own favorite places – basically a handful of plastic tables and chairs set up in an alley off Silom Road. The specialty is seafood, so we had tom yum, clams with chili sauce and squid with garlic. I’ll admit – I was a bit leery, but Ak had already assured me that he has a bit of a sensitive stomach, so he’s pretty picky about where he eats (though I did also find out that he had recently eaten at Sizzler – for shame!). So, I dug right in – and it was delicious! The clams, which I was the least enthusiastic about when ordering, were my favorite and I think I ate way more than my allotted half. What a great welcome to Bangkok.

Next, we ambled across the street to Silom Soi 4, Bangkok’s “gayborhood.” It’s an alley lined from front to back with various gay bars, all with (generally sexy) touts out front claiming to have the best happy hour prices. Ak took me to Bas Bar – a great choice, given that it’s small, quiet, chill and served up some great cocktails – caipirinha for me, mojito for Ak.

Made a relatively early evening of it, so that I could be up (relatively) early to get started on my visit to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.

Learning to Cook Thai Food

Sunday was my cooking class with Thai Farm Cooking School – and it was super fun! Another good group of folks, with visitors from Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and Finland. Our guide and instructor was MB – who got off on the right foot with me when I asked what MB stood for and without missing a beat, she replied, “Most Beautiful.” Yes, I’m sure she uses the same line every time, but as I (and everyone who knows me) can attest, when you’ve got good material, you use it whenever the opportunity arises.

We had a quick tour of a local market and learned about some of the ingredients before heading off to the farm itself. MB took us on a short walk around the garden to learn about some of the other things we’d be cooking with that day.

The kitchen was great – outdoors but within an open and airy structure. Oh, and also equipped with an adorable dozing kitty, called “Gai” – which is “Chicken” in Thai (and to all you racists: no, he was not an ingredient…). Some prep had been done in advance, such as peeling shallots and garlic, deveining shrimp, cutting up the chicken – but we did plenty of slicing and dicing on our own, including preparing a curry paste of our choice (red, yellow, green) from scratch in a mortar and pestle.

Everything we made was quite delicious – my particular favorites were my green curry chicken and the dessert of bananas poached in coconut milk, which was stunning in both its simplicity and scrumptiousness. And who knew how incredibly easy tom yum was to make? Of course, my rendition was a little on the bland side – apparently I’d used too much water… But I’ll try again at home and maybe get the proportions right.

Of course, I more than made up for the mediocre tom yum with my superior spring roll rolling technique. MB was convinced I’d made them before, but I had not! I guess I’m just a natural. It’s good to know I have at least one potentially marketable skill…

As we wrapped up for the day, MB quizzed us on some of the ingredients for the day, asking us the Thai name for long beans. I quickly found them in our recipe book and yelled out, “Tua fak yao” – to which MB kept telling me, “No, fak yu! You fail the course now!” She really knew her audience, since I was LMAO.

I also have to give an extra big “kiitos!” to Oskari, the Finnish exchange student who snapped a lot of these photos. Given my vanity and narcissism, it was great to have so many action shots of me in the kitchen.

Wandering Chiang Mai

Friday and Saturday kind of blurred together. I re-visited Wat Chedi Luang – and was happy I did, as I was there on the annual day of offerings. It was great to see all the school kids in uniforms showing up with their gifts to the temple.

Had a wander one morning through Warorot Market. Enjoyed seeing all the flowers. Lots of food for sale too, though I didn’t indulge.

I had a couple of visits to Fah Lanna Spa – oh, wait – it was actually three, since on Saturday I had treatment at their main facility in Old Town and then after walking the entirety of the Saturday Walking Market, I popped into their satellite branch near my hotel for a brief one-hour foot massage…

ANYHOO, the Fah Lanna Spa in Old Town is gorgeous. So beautiful and relaxing, with prices that are still quite reasonable. My first massage there was a little overly intense. The fellow doing the massage seemed to think that I really needed medium pressure rather than the deep I’d requested – and he was not wrong, as my hamstring is still effed – but he continued to use super deep pressure, eliciting yelps from me periodically. I think he was actually quite skilled in terms of knowing the various “points” within the musculature, but not so much modulating pressure to suit his client. I even had a bruise on my calf the next day.

Nevertheless, I felt pretty good afterwards (well, except for that bruise), so I didn’t have a hard time convincing myself to return the next day. This time I went with three-hour body scrub, oil massage and Thai herbal ball massage (not what you’re thinking, pervs! It’s this.). Oh man, super amazing and relaxing. I even dozed for a bit. Felt like a million bucks afterwards – especially when, in addition to the usual post-treatment sweet tea and crispy rice cakes, I was also served mango and sticky rice – my first time having this Thai specialty. And, unsurprisingly, it was absolutely delicious – though TBH, coconut ice cream is still my favorite.

I think it was on Friday that I had some great khao soi. We’d had some on the night food tour I’d done on Monday, but it not only wasn’t all that impressive, they were out of crunchy noodles to go on top! What an outrage… Anyway, I’d gotten a recommendation from Chowhound about one local’s favorite place for khao soi. I found it easily enough – and it was great. Spicy, but also smooth and rich with coconut milk, the noodles firm yet tender – plus the appropriate toppings! It’s about two hundred meters north of Chang Phueak Gate – here’s the location on a map. Right across from a Hilkoff Coffee stand.

Friday night’s dinner was at Tong Tem Toh, an apparently trendy Northern Thai place that also has great food. I gather it’s popular with tourists and locals alike, though I was the only farang in the place on this particular evening.

Had nam prik poom, a sort of relish made from banana peppers and served with steamed veg for dipping; sai oua, the traditional and super-tasty lemongrass sausage of Northern Thailand; and a Burmese pork curry, which was rich, spicy and meaty. This was probably my favorite dinner in CM – I wish I’d had time to go back, since some of the other plates I saw at other tables looked fantastic.

Stopped on the way to the hotel at my favorite coconut ice cream cart –  because why the hell not? – and picked up a few tchotchkes to bring home. And slept well again! I haven’t taken a single Ambien this trip and I’m getting a better night’s sleep every night than I do at home.

Saturday I tuk-tuk’d over to the Saturday Walking Market. I was frankly leery, given that the Night Bazaar that’s on every night by my hotel is, for the most part. complete shite and every third vendor is selling the same crappy tank tops and elephant pants. But the Saturday Market turned out to be a pleasant surprise – well, pleasant insofar as a lot of the goods on sale were interesting and not the same old crap. It did get quite crowded as the evening progressed, so if you’re claustrophobic, maybe stick to Amazon… Picked up a couple of cool t-shirts and was dying to buy some sneakers with elaborately embroidered floral designs all over, but of course the largest size was still a bit small for my ladies size 13 feet. Frankly, I entered a bit of shopping fugue state, nearly convincing myself that I’m the kind of guy who wears elephant pants, Chang beer tank tops and lots of bracelets and an anklet. Maybe I can dread my beard..? Luckily, I snapped out of it, thanks in large part to seeing THAT GUY all over Chiang Mai and rolling my eyes.

Besides all the crafty stuff, there were tons of different food vendors. I didn’t get too adventurous, sticking with tom yum tai and gyoza – but they were really good and it was fun having tom yum made to order. The proprietor offers customers a taste of the salad during prep so she can adjust to your liking. She was surprised when I requested three chiles – it was pretty spicy, but not too spicy for me!

I also had to get the freshly made chocolate-banana waffles because the smell of them cooking was making me drool. Sadly, it was just OK – much cakier than a typical waffle. I should’ve gotten coconut ice cream…

Oh, and here’s a tip if you’re visiting the Saturday (or Sunday) Walking Market in CM. If you see something you like, just fucking buy it! Chances are it’s inexpensive – and having to fight your way back through the throngs (especially in this heat!) will not put a smile on your face.

So, getting close to wrapping up my time in Chiang Mai. Tomorrow – cooking class!

A Visit to Doi Suthep

Thursday morning. Up early per usual, so it seemed like a good day to visit Doi Suthep. Ak, my new Thai friend in Bangkok, had recently been in Chiang Mai and he recommended getting there first thing in order to avoid the crowds and the heat. Sounded like a good plan to me – now, how am I going to make it up the hill to the temple?

On the one hand, the cheapest (and from all accounts, quite easy albeit only moderately comfortable) way to make the journey is by songthaew, the ubiquitous passenger trucks plying the streets of Chiang Mai. For a mere 50THB, I’d be up the hill and on my way.

On the other, I am 51-goddamn-years-old with a reasonably well-paying job and a taste for the easiest, most comfortable options when traveling. Thus, off I went to the concierge to arrange for a driver to take me there and back. So much for authenticity.

Speaking of “authenticity” (I only use the scare quotes once, but consider them there whenever I use the term), let me digress for a moment. I am enjoying my time Thailand in immensely – not least of all the food. And thanks in large part to travel and food celebrities like Anthony Bourdain (in particular), there is an idea that if one is not seeking out the most unusual, the most off-the-beaten-path, the most daunting-to-western-palates-and-likeliest-to-result-in-GI-distress foods and restaurants, one is merely a dumb tourist, rather than a world traveler. Yes, I’m overstating things a bit, but it’s certainly difficult at times for me to not feel somehow guilty when I decide to have lunch two days in a row at the same tasty but tourist-centric restaurant in the middle of Old Town. Or, as in the case of visiting Doi Suthep, choosing the relative luxury (despite an extraordinarily reasonable price) of having a driver shuttle me to my destinations.

Though when I think about it, those who worship Mr. Bourdain (I don’t bear him any specific ill-will, but am also not a particular fan) and seek out his recommendations wherever they go are their own different brand of inauthentic, given that they are following a path blazed by a rich and famous celebrity with a retinue of assistants, camera people and researchers. During my food tour on Monday night, the other folks were kvelling over Cowboy Hat Lady, made famous thanks largely to Mr. Bourdain, and clamoring for photos with her. Sure, her pork knuckle was really tasty – there were dozens of other food carts within a stone’s throw, but hers was the “one,” the box ticked on that experience.

Of course, to be fair, it is this quest for authenticity that has pushed me out of my comfort zone. Some of the places I’ve eaten and will be writing about required a bit of a push for me to just go ahead and eat. Honestly, I’m not so much concerned about food poisoning in and of itself – Zeus knows I’ve had it more than once in the U.S., sometimes even self-inflicted – it’s more that I’m worried about it kicking in when I’ve got a planned excursion or, worse yet, an airplane flight. And thus far, I’ve had no issues and I’ve enjoyed some really great food I might not have tried otherwise.

I suppose ultimately though, the very idea of authenticity is inauthentic. I may be a stranger in Thailand, but I am a following a path not dissimilar from hundreds of millions of visitors to this country throughout its history. And so far, just about every experience I’ve had, from observing monk’s chanting at Wat Chedi Luang to eating Northern Thai curry at a trendy restaurant in which I was the only farang to being chaffeured out to the countryside with a bunch of other westerners to mingle with elephants, has been pretty great.

Anyway, sorry to ramble. Really, this is all just a reflection of my own rather deep-seated insecurity in most everything I do – and traveling solo probably gives me more time to reflect on it than is necessarily healthy.

So, yeah, the point is I paid $35 to have a driver, Buhm, at my beck-and-call for my trip to Doi Suthep and I’m (kind of) OK with that.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was lovely. Situated atop a hill (Doi Suthep is actually the name of the hill, though it is commonly used to refer to the temple as well) overlooking Chiang Mai, reached by climbing 304 steps up a staircase with dragons on either side. It’s a smallish wat, but with an especially impressive collection of Buddhas and a soothing atmosphere (at least when not surrounded by yammering tourists). I was glad to have made an early start while the place wasn’t too crowded – though a rather large busload of French tourists had arrived moments before me, so it wasn’t exactly a complete oasis of calm. Of course, I did take advantage of my rudimentary French and inquired of one of the group, “Excusez moi, madame. Pouvez-vous prendre un photo de moi avec l’éléphant?” I may not know more than three words of Thai, but I’ll speak whatever non-English language I can given the opportunity!

After Doi Suthep, my driver took me a bit further up the hill to Bhubing Palace. While it does indeed include a couple of relatively simple royal dwellings, it is primarily open to the public to visit the lovely gardens. Roses and orchids are the most popular flowers on display and the circular path around the grounds took me about an hour or so to walk. Very quiet, peaceful and sparsely populated – a welcome respite from some of the more hectic activities in town.

Buhm was taking me back to the hotel and I asked if he could drop me off at Green Bamboo Massage instead. While the services were adequate, I’d been spoiled so far with therapists who were quite intuitive as to which of my muscles required the most attention. I suspect the fellow at this place gives everyone the same massage. Not awful mind you, just fairly cookie-cutter in its application.  

I’ll be honest – at this point I was feeling a bit like I might’ve dedicated too much time to Chiang Mai. Not that I was bored, but I didn’t have a lot on my agenda until Sunday. Of course, this is one of the realities of solo travel. There were actually a couple of tours I was interested in taking – but they require a minimum number of participants, so I had to keep my fingers crossed that there’d be a group I could fifth-wheel with. Sadly, no dice for hiking or biking in Doi Inthanon or a different bike ride in the countryside.

So, I did what any reasonable person would do – I bought myself a coconut ice cream (served with fresh coconut, sticky rice and mung beans) and made an appointment for additional spa services the next day and all was right with the world.

Dinner that night was found via TripAdvisor at a place called Lert Ros. Yeah, I know – while generally helpful for hotels and tours, it’s frankly the worst when it comes to finding good restaurants. I suppose this is simply a reflection of the fact that rankings are driven by user reviews and most people have terrible taste in food (unlike mine, which is perfect). But one place high in the ratings was a quite humble looking Thai place specializing in grilled fish – so off I went!

Found it easily enough – and then convinced myself it was a bit too dodgy looking and kept walking. Then I said myself, “Self, don’t be ridiculous. You traveled all this way, don’t be such a scaredy cat!” So back I went, got a table and had an super delicious salt-crusted, freshly-grilled whole tilapia. It was great! I also had some larb moo, which was just OK. But I enjoyed my meal and was happy that I didn’t chicken out.

A nice walk home, a couple of beers in my hotel room and off to bed. Tomorrow: MOAR SPA TREATMENTS.

Elephants: A Preview

My third day in Chiang Mai was the day of my biggest adventure yet: elephants! Now for all two of you reading (hi Mom!), I’m going to warn you right now – this entry will be brief. I took about 300 photos while visiting Elephant Nature Park and this trip really made clear the limitations of my Chromebook, namely insofar as editing photos (let alone videos, of which I may have a few) is a real PITA.

I will say this: it was an amazing experience. Really from the moment we got off the van that picked up the ten of us from our various hotels, we were face-to-face and hand-to-trunk with elephants. The elephants at this park are all rescued from one place or another – logging camps, street performing and begging – and many have injuries: one stepped on a landmine, another was blinded as punishment by its former owner. Some of the stories are heartbreaking.

But this is a pretty great place for a non-wild elephant to wind up, it seems. The grounds are huge. The elephants are clearly still on display, but given that most of them are habituated to humans, they seem pretty OK with it (as much as one can discern an elephant’s satisfaction with her lot in life). There are definitely routines in their day surrounding their interactions with visitors – but they center primarily on hanging out with tourists who proffer bananas and watermelons as we all amble along through the park. Oh, and there’s also some time spent in the river, dousing them with buckets of water (and feeding more bananas and watermelons).

The locals working at the park seem really engaged in the park’s mission and know the elephants well. The mahouts guide the elephants exclusively with their voices and their hands. No hooks (though presumably the elephants were all subjected to that type of training in their former lives) are used. And they all know the individual elephants – their names, where they came from, their ages, their stories. It was really the most impressively run animal facility I’ve seen – and they do a fantastic job for the visitors as well. I’d guess there were dozen or two separate groups visiting during the day I spent there – but other than seeing a few folks off in the distance, our day was spent primarily with our group of ten, our guide, the mahouts and, of course, elephants. I can’t say enough good things about this experience.

Oh! And in addition to elephants, the park is home to hundreds of dogs and a whole lot of cats. What more could you want?

Once I’m back home in SF with access to a full-powered computer, I’ll write more about our activities that day – but here are a few photos to give some idea of my great day with elephants.

First Days in Chiang Mai

My flight to Chiang Mai was scheduled to depart at 1:10PM – and my beautifully-appointed, spic-and-span Thai Airways 777 (!) pushed back from the gate at exactly 1:10PM. Smiling flight attendants had shown passengers to their assigned seats – plus the flight was about three-quarters full, so most everybody flying solo had an open seat next to them. Oh, and then once in the air, we were served a tasty (and free) boxed lunch of a couple of small sandwiches. We arrived at the gate in Chiang Mai at exactly 2:20PM. United, are you listening?

Anyway, my first impression of Chiang Mai was… uncertain. It’s not especially pretty on the short trip from the airport and traffic, as it seems to be everywhere here, is cuckoo. So, I guess we’ll see.

I checked into the Dusit D2, though perhaps not as efficiently as one might hope – plus there was a real hard-sell on purchasing breakfast. And I was frankly AOK with having breakfast here! But in order to get the special rate, I had to determine right then and there which mornings I wanted to have breakfast. Kind of annoying, but what’re you gonna do?

Anyway, was shown up to my room and it was… questionable. Besides looking a bit shopworn, there was a whiff of mildew to the place. Anyway, I wanted to settle in and have a nap, so I opened the window and hoped for the best. More to come on this later…

After freshening up, I headed downstairs to meet up with my Evening Market Tour with Chiang Mai Street Food Tours. And it was… okay. I was a little leery at first, as the first couple in the van when I got in were yakking about their next trip to Cabo and how much room there was in the timeshare. The next couple seemed of a similar ilk and they were yukkiing it up about whether the “ghettos” were worse in Philly or Baltimore. Yikes… But once we got to our first stop and sat down to eat, everyone seemed to relax and it was fine. Our guide Tom was a good guy, and trained us to order in Thai at the various stalls we stopped at.

My favorite was our first stop, where we had tom saap (spicy Northern Thai soup) and spicy and aromatic fish dish with crispy fish, onions, fish sauce, etc. and sticky rice. Other stops included khao ka moo (braised pork knuckle in aromatic sauce) which we actually got two versions of – one from the famous Cowboy Hat Lady and the other from the stall next door, prepared by her sister! Both were quite tasty… It was a good sampling of food from a variety of vendors – though I’ll confess, I wasn’t swooning over any of it.

Got back to my room and the smell remained. Not overpowering, but certainly not ideal. I’ll be honest – at this point, I was not really loving Chiang Mai. But tomorrow is another day…

And so it was! Up early for a decent breakfast at the hotel, then a quick walk up the street (in bone-chilling and overcast 69 degrees!) to Zabai Thai Spa, a small place that was well-reviewed online. Made an appointment for 3:00 that afternoon then headed toward the Old City. On my way, I stumbled across Wat Bupparum, a lovely temple right in the middle of the city. Ladies on the grounds had small bamboo balls with live birds inside – for a donation, the birds are set free. There were a variety of roosters and hens roaming about and the ancient part of the wat was impressive.

I continued on my way and discovered Wat Pan Tao. Another beautiful temple with a pagoda in back in the midst of being repaired. I was stopped by a trio of young monks, who asked if they could speak to me and record a video. “Of course!” I said. I guess this is a way for them to practice their English – which was far superior to my Thai! Very nice young men (and I foolishly forgot to have them pose for a photo with me).

Continued my amble to Wat Phra Singh and had a quick look around. Was ready to call it day and headed back the way I came – but I spied a rather massive ruin of an ancient wat above the rooftops. Not sure how I’d missed it earlier, but this turned to to be Wat Chedi Luang.

The temple complex is large and contains several of different and very beautifully decorated buildings, with impressive carvings and decorations – probably my favorite of which was the City Pillar to the left of the entrance, whose interior walls are covered with elaborate paintings. And sorry, no chicks allowed!

I continued past these structures and came to the ruins of Wat Chedi. Now, my philistinism is well-known – and frankly, ruins are not always of great interest to me. But this was breathtaking – both beautiful to look at and a marvel of ancient engineering. Absolutely the highlight of my day in the Old City. I wandered around for at least an hour and will likely return later in the week.

Back to the spa, where I had a two-hour going-over – and walked out feeling great. Price was the usually shockingly reasonable – I recommend Zabai unreservedly!

I must say, though, that while I was getting my massage, I was dwelling on my dissatisfaction with my room at the hotel. Again, it wasn’t untenable, but given that I’m staying here a week, it was annoying.

So, once I got back to the hotel, I stopped by the front desk and shared that I wasn’t all that happy with my room and why. Turns out, I was speaking with the assistant hotel manager, Ann. She apologized, told me she’d show me another room to see if it was more to my liking and off we went. On the ride up in elevator, she indicated that the rate I was paying was on the high side (for the record, it’s $90 per night…), so she’d upgraded me. We arrived on the 9th floor and I was shown a one-bedroom suite. “I’ll take it!” I blurted.

Ann told me to take my time getting my belongings together, then just ring for the bellman. I think I was re-packed in about three minutes and soon enough was ensconced in my spacious new digs. Squeaky wheel gets grease!

Later I had a pretty decent dinner at Papa Curry, a Japanese curry place I’d seen earlier. Not the friendliest vibe in this place, but a darn tasty katsu with a decent curry. Back to the hotel with a couple of beers and off to bed, preparing for an early start for my visit with elephants. And, after a really nice day out and about, I was really liking Chiang Mai.

Floating Markets Tour

On Sunday, I had signed up for the Offbeat Floating Market Tour with Bangkok Food Tours. They only do this tour on weekends and literally the only day I was available was this particular Sunday, so I was really happy that they had space for me.

Our guide, Olive, along with a driver and a van picked me up at 7AM. I joined what turned out to be a really fun group (always a bit of a crapshoot): an Australian lady, also traveling solo; a couple from Austria, though she was originally from Mexico; and a couple from L.A. complete with tatts, Docs, a beard as impressive as mine (on him) and bright purple hair (on her).

So, what can I say about the tour? I’ll simply go with “amazing.” Olive was great – personable, humorous, extremely knowledgeable and really enthusiastic about every place she took us. Each of the places we visited was fascinating in its own right and all rather different from one another.

As for the food? Delicious. All of it. And so much of it! I mean, granted it was over the course of a whole day, but by the time coconut ice cream rolled around, I was really pushing myself… Oh, who am I kidding? I scarfed down every bite of ice cream with nary a whimper.

I’ll go ahead and let the photos tell most of the story – though do keep in mind, I didn’t even capture our last meal together at a seafood restaurant at Amphawa Market – we had scallops with butter and garlic; crab fried rice; tom yum with squid (SO FREAKING GOOD); and a whole sea bass.

Oh, and the couple from L.A. had taken the nighttime tuk-tuk food tour with the same company and loved that one too… So, I might have to check that out once I get back to BKK next week. But certainly this tour was one of the best I’ve ever taken and certainly a high point of my visit to Thailand.

Thailand: My Adventure Begins!

So, the flight over – it was really long. REALLY long. 10+ hours to Narita, 4+ hour layover, then 6+ hours to Bangkok. I left my apartment in SF at 9AM Thursday and arrived at my hotel in Bangkok just before midnight on Friday. That international dateline is cray…

Now, I could find a few things to complain about (I did fly United to Tokyo, after all) – but honestly? It was fine. Nothing went horribly wrong and I made it to my destination halfway around the world just 30 minutes behind schedule. Plus the United Club in NRT is pretty great (esp when compared to the shopworn, overcrowded dump that passes for a “lounge” in SFO) and there is an excellent sushi restaurant right in the airport.

Anyway, I’m staying at the Riva Surya Hotel in Bangkok. It’s quite nice – and I got a bargain! Can’t ask for more than that. Well, except for hoping I don’t run into the boorish Aussie woman again at breakfast. They have a pretty decent buffet spread, including Western-style breakfast foods like bacon, potatoes, sausage, baked beans, along with eggs prepared to order, plus yogurt, fruit, cereal, rice, noodles, salad, etc. Anyway, this dame was dissatisfied with the temperature of her sausage and potatoes. “These are cold. I’m not paying for this. They’re all cold. I’m not paying for this.” Now, mind you, she continued to eat her other selections (and the cold ones, for all I know) – and it was all I could do not to start quoting Judge Judy at her: “You ate the steak! You have to pay for it now.” Anyway, she was terrible to every one of the apologetic staff she spoke to – each time reiterating, “I’m not paying for this.” BUT YOU ATE THE BREAKFAST, LADY. Oh, also? The breakfast runs about US$10.

Decided to go for a bit of walk. It was still quite early – about 9AM – so the streets were all pretty quiet. I’m not far from Khao San Rd., so I checked it out. Let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea particularly… and I suspect that would go double in the evening. But like I always say, “à chacun son goût.”

But I did want to locate Pai Spa, a place not far from Khao San that seemed to be well-reputed (including a recommendation from my hotel). They didn’t open ‘til 10AM, but the receptionist was already there, so she signed me up for 30 minute foot reflexology and 2 hours (!) of Thai massage and told me it’d be a 15 minute wait. I strolled about a bit, then returned.

I’d never had a Thai massage, so wasn’t sure what to expect. But I explained my recent hamstring injury to my therapist, Jin, and indicated my preference for deep pressure. And let me tell you, she did not fool around. She was def of the school of thought, “no pain, no gain.” She probably spent 90 minutes just on my legs, which thanks to bike riding are always super-tense. Anyway, due to all the attention they required (from Jin’s hands, elbows and feet – which periodically elicited grunts and sharp intakes of breath – I figured either I’d be cured or crippled for life), Jin observed, “I haven’t even done your back yet. Do you want one more hour?” Well, yes, obviously! Oh, and Jin was also using heat therapy during my massage, once she discovered that my whole body is basically a clenched fist made of piano wire – she used a steam-heated ball of herbs to really go after my hamstring and parts of my back. I was also contorted repeatedly while she stretched and cracked various parts of me. And did I mention how nice she was? Thai massage – at least for me – wasn’t super-relaxing, due to the intensity of the pressure. So we chatted, during the time we spent together. She was funny and kind and asked me lots of questions about my visit and my home.

And the verdict? I am healed! Well, at least for the day – I honestly felt like a million bucks after 3 ½ hours (!) of treatment. As of this writing, my hamstring is still giving me twinges, but definitely improved.

After this, I wandered back to my hotel for a late lunch poolside – though more importantly, I saw many cats on the street on my way back!

Had a nap before my Nighttime Bike Tour with Grasshopper Adventures. And what an adventure it was! The group was semi-meh. Everyone was perfectly pleasant, but two pairs of parent friends with their two pairs of teenage boys – they were relatively well-behaved but still: teenagers! Also a friendly couple of Texans who currently work in Singapore, so they were just spending a long weekend in BKK – nice!. And our guide was super.

We started off wending our way through the alleys and side streets surrounding Khao San Rd., on our way to the river. Biked along the river walk for a bit, then hopped on a little ferry to get to the other side. Stopped at a Buddhist temple in time for evening chants, which was great. Also, a Catholic church from the Portugese days, where evening mass was being celebrated with song. Wound our way through more tiny alleys, now off from the tourist track and back across the river by bridge to the quite amazing flower market. Our guide also treated us to sticky rice and grilled pork from a couple of street vendors. Finally, we had a nice visit a Wat Pho – not only was it spectacular, but it was beautifully lit and nearly devoid of visitors.

Oh, and about the time we crossed the bridge, it started to rain – not pouring, but certainly not sprinkling. Anyway, it didn’t dampen (heh) my spirits and certainly made if feel like quite the adventure.

All in all, a pretty full day to start my time in Bangkok. I think I’m gonna like it here…