As soon as I arrived in Chiang Mai, I could feel it was a town that was going to grow on me. Having come from the chaos of Bangkok, it was refreshing that Chiang Mai was a walkable town full of activities and character.
The character of the town seemed one of trust, health and skills. The small streets were lined with welcoming guesthouses, food sellers, laundrettes and second hand book shops. Cycle and motorbike hires were common and meant the whole town was in easy reach. It was the kind of place I could easily spend a couple of weeks.
I learned how to give a Thai massage, how to rock climb, watched some live Muay Thai, zip lined through the forests and used it as my jump-off to the Elephant Nature Park, whose office is in the town.
Staying at a repeatedly recommended hostel called Julie’s Guesthouse meant having a great base to explore from arrange transport to/from. Coming off a very comfortable 18 hour 2nd class sleeper train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong, there was a tuk-tuk waving a board giving a free ride to the hostel. Although it’s mainly for guests who haven’t already booked, I managed to sneak aboard the long tuk-tuk and after on 10 mins, we were at the hostel. What I liked about the hostel the most, was that everything was done on trust. Rent, food, drink and even trips were noted down in a numbered note book which was totted up at the end and settled. This meant, you didn’t have to worry about carrying cash on you for the majority of the time there.
I picked up one of the very useful Nancy Chandler maps and trawled through it over some tasty vege food and a super wheatgrass smoothie from Juice4U. The Nancy Chandler map is a cute, hand drawn map of town and a book that acts as an index (items on the map as categories, with a lookup to the map reference). There was so many activities to choose from that I found it difficult to decide how to spend my time. Two full days in town just didn’t feel enough, but with the Elephant Nature Park booked in, i couldn’t make any alternations.
Thai Massage Course
I booked a one day (back of body) Thai massage course at a centre called Namo, which doubled up as a yoga centre. The course was one-on-one with Rad who would run through techniques in a course book she supplied, then demonstrated on me, then I practiced on her. I can safely say 5 hours of tuition taught me that Thai massages are hard work. The technique, unlike Western oil massages, is to stretch the body and put pressure on the muscles using the fleshy part of your palm. I have most respect for people who do this all day.
For those who don’t know me well, I can say I suffer from vertigo of the “exposed edge” variety. Ski slopes, fairground rides and free fall don’t scare me, but put me higher than 10ft in the air and let me realise that I have the ability to slip and my legs turn to absolute jelly. I lose my humour and start swearing profusely. It annoys me, because personally, I like outdoor physical activities and what seems like a disability comes up when I least want it to. So, having decided that part of my travel experience was to push my comfort zone, I figured the best way to do that was to throw myself at it.
I spotted Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures on map and given it was just round the corner from my hostel, strolled down to check it out. The shop has a neat bouldering wall out the back and I was sold on the Introduction To Rock Climbing course by the climbing enthusiasts in the shop.
On the day of the trip, myself and a bunch of other more experienced climbers were transported in a truck to The Crazy Horse rock face. I practiced my first knot on the way journey down. The more experienced climbers were just using the club for transport, lunch and equipment rental. It turned out I was the only climbing on the beginners course, so I had two experienced instructors to entertain.
I started on a wall that was a 5.5 on the climbing scale. I watched as my instructor shot up the rock as the lead climber and pegged the route. When it came to my turn, I got up a third of the climb before decided I could neither risk the next move up for fear of falling or look down. First time letting the line take your weight as you fall backwards of the rock was most definitely scary for me.
I was told that 5.5 is much harder than the beginners would start at and the instructors lined up a 5.0 route. Three quarters of the way up that one, I choked again. I couldn’t get over the fear of missing a move and relying on the rope. The instructors lowered me defeated to the ground again.
“What’s the simplest one you’ve got?” I asked.
They marked out a 4.0 route, which thankfully I completed and my confidence began to climb. Getting over the fear of falling, I was told, was the key.
As the rest of the day went on, we did some abseiling down a massive cavern. Once inside, I climbed progressively difficult and longer climbs. By the last climb, only when I had got to the top, I realised there was a completely different feeling. It felt like with time being on the rocks, my fear of heights was getting better. We finished the day with a successful 5.0 climb in the cavern and I felt much more confident. I was probably more tired than when I started the day, but simply my ability to take that next step was proving true.
I thought the instructors were incredibly patient and managed to get me through some tough mental battles.
Anyone in Chiang Mai on a Sunday will no doubt be at the Sunday Market they have. I underestimated just how big it was. Stretching from end to end of the main street, it took 4 hours to get through it all. Handicrafts, food, clothes and performers. It was tempting to buy it all, but knowing I’d have to carry everything I got, I only bought some essential clothes for the warm Asian weather.
In terms of food, the market had one of those infamous insect stalls. I’m happy to say, I didn’t try any of it.
After trying out some Muay Thai in Hong Kong, I was interested to see some live fights when I was in Thailand. Scooting through Bangkok in a day meant Chiang Mai was my first chance to check it out. The Thapae stadium in town were selling tickets for 400 THB. I went with a couple of guys from the hostel and we were lucky enough to get next to front row seats.
The schedule had a mix of fights lined up. An all-female fight, an international (French) guy fighting a local Thai and a several Thai vs. Thai fights. I wasn’t sure how I felt about seeing women fighting to knock each other out, especially when the one closest to us had the sweetest smile I had ever seen in a fighter.
What I realised as the night went on, is that Muay Thai is incredibly respectful. Whilst competitors are trying to inflict blows on each other, I didn’t witness any foul play and after the simplest of clashes, fighters would touch gloves. Before every fight, it seemed like a ceremony of respect to each other and to the sport. With that in mind, the all-female fight wasn’t as bad as I expected and the others were great viewing.
I’m told all fight nights contain one mystery fight. For us, that night, it was 8 blind folded competitors in the ring swinging arms all over the place furiously in the hope they’d knock something that breathed out. Even the referee (without a blindfold) got involved in landing some blows for fun.
Flight of the Gibbon
Zip line experiences are becoming more common among travellers. Each year new sites near the jungles crop up with some form of claim about their zip lines. In my plans, I had a choice between staying overnight at Huay Xai with the Gibbon Experience, or a half day experience in Chiang Mai at Flight of the Gibbon. Feeling pushed for time, I opted for the Flight of the Gibbon experience. Although in town I was pushed other cheaper Thai set-up experiences, I opted for these guys because they had a reputation for safety and had been around for years.
A 6:30am pickup meant were ready to plunge down zip lines by 7:30. The set up at the site was very professional. No communication barriers with the coordinators and they did everything to book, always maintaining one clip on a wire at a time. They made sure it wasn’t always the same people going first.
Flight of the Gibbon is a 2-3 hour zip line experience through the tree tops, with an occasional walk across a wooden slat bridge or spiral staircase. You get the chance to spot Gibbons in the wild too, and sure enough, we saw a small family swinging through the trees early on in the day.
The Rock Climbing i had done was great prep for the heights of the tree tops. I wasn’t feeling bad walking across the high bridges. Look, no handsâ€¦.