“I wish I had more time…” (But don’t we all.)
That’s what I sat thinking as the bus departed Chiang Rai, weaving and leaning top-heavy through the mountain passes bearing southwest on my return trip towards Chiang Mai. Every moment of acceleration sent me sliding in my slippery, stale vinyl seat. The irony is, I didn’t have to leave, but somehow time (and weather, and ethics) weren’t on my side.
I flew straight over temple-spotted Central Thailand, so it’s hard to say if Chiang Mai is actually the entry point into the mountainy wilderness, but for me it was. Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand, but if you limit your stay to the Old City, it would seem much smaller. Inside the moat, the traffic is dense, but only because the streets are narrow. Outside, the highways pour out, the city sprawls, and the traffic buzzes. Outside is also your best chance at a taste of the real Lanna (Northern Thai) home-cooked flavor, as most of the food inside the Old City isn’t as bold or punchy to appeal to tourist palettes.
Though the second largest city, it’s smaller than Bangkok by an order of magnitude. So the city itself is very much what you’d expect from any midsize city—pretty livable, decent dining, enough to keep tourists occupied for several days. But the real draw to Chiang Mai is what the surrounding villages and landscapes hold.
Less than 10km in any direction will send you up a mountain side. Amid the dense green jungle are yet more tourist traps (and I use “traps” very intentionally… many of these venues attract tourists at the expense of the attraction), such as elephant camps that mimic circus acts of yesteryear, (caged, sedated) tiger encounters, monkey shows, and snake shows. More humane, but not necessarily altogether sustainable, options include orchid farms, botanical gardens, bungee jumping, ATV jungle climbs, zip lining, waterfalls, trekking, mountain biking, and butterfly farms. The outdoor adventure scene would keep adrenaline junkies busy for weeks.
Chiang Mai is decidedly the more established bounce point for adventure seekers, however its little northeastern sister city, Chiang Rai, is making a name as the new frontier for outdoor activities. Once riddled with poppy plantations (and the heavily armed AK47 bearing security associated with it) that supported the lucrative opium trade, a government crop replacement program called the Royal Project, where farmers sell produce directly to the government, has sanitized the region. Other private organizations, such as Akha Ama Coffee Roasters, have established sustainable enterprises to train villagers in a craft or trade like coffee farming. So exploration through nearly all Northern border towns is now safe. New outfits, some claiming to be ethically- and sustainably-minded, are springing up to guide tourists through this less traveled expanse.
So I dipped my toe in the adventure water in Chiang Mai, buying into a few activities that required a guide. I enjoyed great food, fantastic hosts, fierce Muay Thai, a few twisty mountain roads, and a bustling small town with magnificent temples and endless markets.
But because of the proliferation and turnover of trekking outfits and tour guides in Chiang Mai (often if a guide outfit earned a bad reputation, the parent tour operator would simply change the name of the outfit and nothing else), I decided to reserve any overnight excursions for Chiang Rai where my revised, original plan was to conduct a self-guided tour of the border towns.
(My original, original plan was to visit Chiang Mai earlier in my trip. Chiang Rai was not initially on my itinerary, but after I got stuck in Cambodia, end-of-trip SCUBA diving was nixed and Chiang Rai was added. Let’s just call the self-guided border town tour my original plan for the sake of clarity.)
In Chiang Mai, I learned about the seasons in Thailand from my lovely hosts at Inn Oon Chiangmai Home. There are three seasons, as opposed to the four most Americans are familiar with: winter, summer, and rainy season. I thought “rainy season” was just a time of year that it rained more than usual. It is that. But just like we have spring and autumn, rainy season is the name of the third season. It runs from June to October, and the weather systems come from both the Southwest and Northeast. So it’s hard to escape. And it was right on schedule. May brought the heat; June brought the heat and the rain.
The locals were happy to have rain this rainy season compared to last year’s draught ridden rainy season. However it does damper open-air, outdoor activities.
Fast forward a couple days to Chiang Rai, where I had intended to stay 2 nights then take off for the border towns. I found myself caught in two massive downpours on my first full day in Chiang Rai, where I didn’t venture more than 10km from city center.
Two days is plenty of time to explore nearby Chiang Rai, but like Chiang Mai, the draw is in the surrounding area. Many of the surrounding areas are explorable on day trips, like Golden Triangle (which is a little town where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos converge), Doi Tong, Mae Salong, Mae Sai (where you can cross into Tachileik, Myanmar), Chiang Saen, and dozens of others, but I was hoping to stay overnight in the towns.
For my full day in Chiang Rai, I was fortunate enough to visit The White Temple (featured), Wat Rong Khun, which was likely the most interesting temple I’ve seen thus far. I also visited Black House, which was equally weird, only dark… lots of animal skins and skulls. These two attractions don’t fit the mould of all the rest I’ve seen in Thailand. They could be transplanted to Barcelona and Bon Temps, respectively, and be equally at home. I finally visited the Saturday Walking Street, which is a fantastic night market held, you guessed it, on Saturdays. The market is the most like a real market I’ve seen. It actually had goods that locals would purchase rather than tourist tchotchkes, which it also had.
The winding mountain roads, the serene landscapes, the peaceful quiet of the countryside, and the excitement of self-guided exploration along country borders were the real attractions for me. I was excited about the overnight rural experience in the smaller villages, but cliche as it is, it truly was about the journey.
While the rain was certainly a distraction, the annoyance was surmountable. More than annoying, the severity of the rain was a safety risk. So better judgement prevailed, and I averted my original plan.
Trying to maximize my time whilst actually in Chiang Rai, I didn’t have much time to establish a new plan for the last 3 days of my trip, and I never really had a backup (remember, this “original” plan was already my backup).
So in addition to actually touring Chiang Rai, I quickly started researching trekking options, which would have kept me closer to Chiang Rai and excluded the farther reaching border towns. Sadly, many of the trekking options exploit small villages and wildlife, so finding an ethical tour company on a weekend with only one day’s notice is very challenging.
After narrowing my search to a select few which appeared to practice sustainable tourism, I walked to a few local addresses to book in office. But the addresses were dead ends. Most of the online options required hefty down payments and email confirmation of booking, which again over the weekend, would have spent valuable time. I did have a one-night trekking option through my guesthouse, but selecting an ethical outfit was more important than a random trek, so I opted against that as well.
In addition to selecting the right guide, I was also concerned about the weather for a trek, but it wouldn’t have been quite the safety risk as operating a vehicle. So after a few hours, I hit a trekking wall.
I explored a few other options besides trekking, which included taking the slow route back through Central Thailand via local transportation (likely a train). I would have had the opportunity to visit a few more ancient cities were empires once existed along the way, like Sukothai, but despite the majesty of Thai wats, I was a bit templed out.
Balancing exploring Chiang Rai with planning the rest of my trip—all in a single day—I had to make a quick decision so one (or more) of my remaining days wouldn’t be left idle. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with downtime, but I felt compelled to maximize these days since the last 8 weeks are but a blink in time. Had I spent even one more day planning, which an overnight trek definitely would have required between choosing, scheduling (pending tour availability), booking, paying, and packing, I would have only had 2 practical days left. Multi-day trekking really warrants a bit of advance planning unless you have extra time to let things unfold.
While I’m not going to spoil what I decided to do in this post, the irony is that I didn’t have to leave, but I did. For some reason, in the day that I had to plan, I couldn’t figure out a way to fill 3 days in north Thailand with a hard stop back to Singapore. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the towns, but unless I was planning on relaxing longer or more of an immersion, my time inside the city proper felt sufficient.
As I departed through the twisty mountain roads, I almost felt wasteful that I hadn’t squeezed all the juice out of the fruit while it was in my grip—a feeling nearly akin to guilt maybe? I’m not sure there’s a word for it…
I was asking myself for just a little more time to extract that experience from this trip and let it unfold. I actually did have a little more time, but the stars didn’t align. Weather didn’t cooperate. Tour agencies were hard to navigate, and even harder to contact, though it may have been easier if ethical tourism wasn’t such a critical factor for me. And having non-business hours over the weekend didn’t help either.
Alas, I’m excited for this last leg, but a few more days’ respite connecting with nature unbridled would have been a refreshing compliment to the city dwelling I’ve done over the last 2 months.