Ah, Chiang Mai. Coming from central Thailand, I'd heard so many good things about heading up north. Rachel had just been in Thailand a few weeks prior, and loved the city. So many people do. I had high hopes.
Coming from Kanchanaburi where I'd had a rough time, it was so welcome to get to Chiang Mai. I was a bit wary of arriving in a new place where I didn't know anyone, especially since I'd spent so much time alone previously, but as soon as I arrived I met two really lovely girls and spent the day with one of them. We got Thai massages together (which they treated as a couples massage -- we got to know each other real fast!) and ate some delicious khao soi -- which quickly became my favorite dish of my travels yet.
The rest of my time was spent exploring night markets, visiting some really beautiful temples, renting a motorbike all on my own, visiting the Chiang Mai "Grand Canyon" (hilarious), and drinking far too many mango shakes.
I was really proud of myself for driving a motorbike on my own for the first time (without a group of friends), and was feeling great -- until a small mishap. I drove out a bit further than I should have, and it ended up getting dark while I was out. I wasn't use to driving at night or in much traffic at all, so I was really nervous getting the bike back in time before the shop closed. As I got deeper into the traffic, I was coming to a stoplight and my bike skidded on a metal plate in the road and I almost tipped. I caught myself in time, but was shaking with fear and proceeded to sit at the red light trying not to cry. On top of that, I got lost getting back and found myself in a dead end alley being chased by (seemingly) vicious dogs barking at my side. It was totally terrifying and I got the bike back never wanting to get on one again. Of course I eventually did -- but I needed some recovery time first!
And the highlight of Chiang Mai -- the elephants! There are lots of elephant sanctuaries in the Chiang Mai area, where elephants are rescued from abusive tourist parks and kept humanely. So many places allow tourists to ride elephants, which has recently been recognized as really harmful to the elephants. Many places abuse the elephants into submission, when they're not actually meant to carry anything on their backs at all, and often die very prematurely from overworking. I wasn't sure if I wanted to spend the money on the day trip (it's relatively expensive for SE Asia) but again my sister encouraged me to go. And MAN I am so glad I did. I went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which is a really amazing organization -- they've purchased the elephants from abusive organizations, and the local people of the area then own them, as opposed to the organization owning them. They raise the money to feed the elephants, which is nearly impossible for local people, which then discourages them from selling the animals to cruel tourist companies. They also employ local people and teach them how to properly care for the elephants on their land. It truly was amazing.
And one of the most incredible moments of my trip happened that day. We were playing with the elephants in the mud (photo evidence here!) and then we all traipsed to a waterfall to rinse off and bathe them. The elephants loved it -- throwing themselves down into the water, spraying each other, playing together. One elephant laid down right in front of me, and we were tossing buckets of water onto her to rinse the mud away. All the water was running into her eye, and to my disbelief she reached up with her trunk and rubbed her eye clean. It was such a small but beautiful moment -- I really understood how intelligent and caring these huge animals are, and it just melted my heart. It made me feel not very separate from them at all -- as if we had more in common than not.
I also made some new friends as I was swimming at the Grand Canyon on my own, and ended up running into them in Pai as well, becoming fast friends. More on Pai soon!