After leaving Koh Lanta we took the return flight back to Bangkok, with the intention of catching the sleeper train up to Chiang Mai. We could have flown all the way, but we heard that there was some beautiful scenery in the morning as the train approaches Chiang Mai. Although they sometimes get booked up, we were able to book a second class, air conditioned sleeper cabin for the same day. It was also better value than flying, at only around £15 each.
Our ‘cabin’ turned out to be a long carriage with bunk beds head to toe alongside the corridor. Although the potential for a noisy and uncomfortable ride was there, we actually has a lovely time. We joined in a few conversations with the people above us, and then the train seemed to quiet once the lights went out at around ten. The beds were comfortable enough, and we were sufficiently tired that I slept soundly until the morning, where, as promised we watched the sun rise above dense jungle mountains.
The arrival into Chiang Mai station was less serene. We would grow used to it later, but stepping off transport as tourists in a busy South-East Asian town means that you will inevitably meet a barrage of men with signs advertising their guest house and shouting for your attention. We had already learnt that this point that it would be best to scout out the alternatives before agreeing to the first price we heard. Walking a little way out of the old town, we found a quieter little guest house offering double rooms with ensuites and aircon for less than the original price we had been quoted for a shared bathroom and fan. After settling into our room and freshening up, we began to explore.
Chiang Mai is undoubtedly easier to love instantly than Bangkok. The Old City retains some of its gateways and walls, and almost every street has a temple around the corner. We spent a lot of time admiring the temples, which were so different to any architecture I had ever seen. One particular temple had a garden of trees all offering plaques of wisdom. “With mindfulness, a person always prospers”, “Try to be good but not to be great, otherwise you will be in danger” and “Tide and time wait for no man” were some of my favourites. Even outside the old city, our guesthouse had a crumbling pagoda next door which we looked out onto from our balcony. In the evenings we inevitably found ourselves gravitating towards the night market, a spectacular show of colours, fabrics, statues and food. We watched traditional dancers jingling with bells and moving in complete harmony with one another, and feasted on street food for less than the price of a coffee from home.
An obvious excursion from Chiang Mai is to the small, laid back and charming town of Pai, around three hours drive north from Chiang Mai. I wish we had had longer there, but the short time we had we absolutely loved, and it’s definitely a must for anyone with enough time. We were lucky enough to arrive the same evening as a festival was beginning, but we got the impression that even on an average evening it was the kind of town that never slept. From seemingly entranced drummers to dancers and charmingly out-of-time instrumental bands, we watched them all with awe and a level of bemusement. For the evening, we found a wooden cabin in the jungle for a great price and a short walk from the centre of everything.
Pai is also surrounded by absolutely stunning scenery. Sitting low amongst dozens of mountains, if you arrive in daylight you’ll see it peeking out from a misty haze of cloud. And with the surrounding mountains, the abundance of waterfalls nearby is unsurprising. A quick internet search will tell you which are most impressive at what time of year, as some of them dry out in the summer months. Perhaps our favourite natural feature though was the incredible Pai hotsprings. A collection of gently cascading natural pools, ranging from hot enough to boil an egg, to 37 degrees and down to much cooler, they really were amazing.
Pai would be our last pin on the map in Thailand and it made it hard to say goodbye to the country. But as we reached the two week mark, we knew it was time to move on and we booked our onward transport to the Laos border.