Northern Thailand with Mom

After our adventures in Vietnam, we headed back to Thailand because Sam’s mom would be joining us for a couple of weeks! Yay! We spent about two jam-packed weeks exploring Bangkok and northern Thailand with her. We fit in as much as possible from visiting temples to a Thai cooking class, an overnight at an elephant sanctuary to rural cave exploration! I think we’re all still recovering from the busy days but it was so worth it.

Busy in Bangkok

We picked Sam’s mom, Michelle, up from the Bangkok airport, checked into the hotel, and then explored the city for a day. Walking around Bangkok is a whole experience on its own and it was exciting to see the city with fresh eyes again. A tuktuk filled with pineapples driving down the street, the Buddhist monks sitting in Starbucks, and the smells of durian from the Chinatown market. Bangkok is definitely not easy on the senses but it is special nonetheless.

While exploring the city, we visited a few temples including Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the Golden Mountain Temple. Although we had already visited them on our first trip to Bangkok, we were still in awe of the intricate detail of the mosaic and beautiful designs.

The city was HOT and while Michelle was happy to have left the Michigan weather, we were still adjusting back to it from the cooler temperatures in northern Vietnam. We strolled around the city, letting her get a taste of Bangkok before making our way to northern Thailand.

Heading North to Chiang Mai

After Bangkok, our next destination was Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand. It’s home to many famous temples, a large night market, and mountainous national parks.

To reach northern Thailand, we took the 14-hour night train. Each of us was assigned to our own bunk but we were sat all together. We sat up chatting for a bit before trying our best to get some sleep on the long ride. We arrived at the Chiang Mai train station the following morning and grabbed a taxi to our hotel. In Thailand, we can use an app called Grab that is just like Uber! We spent the first half of the day walking around Chiang Mai, getting acquainted with the city that we’d be in and out of over the next 10ish days.

A Thai Cooking Class

That afternoon we were picked up for our Thai Cooking Class! You know we love our cooking classes and were super excited to share this experience with Michelle. We each got to pick a soup, curry, an additional dish (pad thai or spring rolls), as well as dessert.

When we arrived, we were given a tour of the organic farm and taught about the different foods they grow there. We collected some ingredients for our dishes including chili peppers, lemongrass, and galangal (Thai ginger) before heading into the kitchen. We put on our aprons and got to work!

Over the next couple of hours, we made 4 amazing dishes, leaving the class full and proud of the meal we made. The host of our cooking class was so friendly and a great teacher. We appreciated that every step was broken down and easy to follow. Plus, there was always a way to make each dish vegan, replacing fish sauce with mushroom sauce, and meat with tofu!

For dessert, we had mango sticky rice and coconut sticky rice, traditional Thai desserts. Yum!

A Little Slice of Pai

After a good night’s sleep with our Thai food comas, we were up early to catch our van to Pai. Pai is a small town in the mountains of northern Thailand. And the temperature is often cooler than that of Chiang Mai and Bangkok, thank goodness. It is very popular on the tourist track, but the rural surroundings make it easy to escape the busy small town.

The van ride to Pai is not for the faint of heart. The 4-hour ride includes 762 twists and turns. Thank goodness for motion sickness medicine!

Luckily, we made it safe, arriving ready to see what Pai was all about. We checked into our little bungalows and explored the small town. Our first day in Pai was spent mostly walking around and eating food (our favorite pastime). We even stumbled across “Cheese Madness”, a grilled cheese restaurant offering vegan options, so you know we couldn’t pass that up.

Exploring Pai’s Countryside

Our first full day in Pai was filled with adventure. We rented mopeds and headed out of town. The first stop was the Big White Buddha. We climbed up to the Buddha and took in the views of the surrounding mountains. After that, we made our way to Nam Lod Cave.

Nam Lod Cave is one large cave system made up of 3 different sections. To tour the cave, you have to pay a guide, who is local to the area to take you on a tour with a lantern because it can be very dark. The guides we had were both friendly, pointed out some unique rock formations, and did try to answer questions we had the best they could with the language barrier.

In the cave, there are a couple of teakwood coffins that are protected as artifacts from people who lived in the cave system thousands of years ago. There is also a stream/river that runs through the cave. Part of the tour included a bamboo raft trip through a dark section of the cave that opened up to a large opening at the end. You can see the rafts in one of the pictures below as well as the opening of the cave in another. The rafting was a cool experience and there were HUGE fish swimming around the raft hoping for some food.

Pai Night Market

That night, we went to the night market and ate our way around the different stalls. We were handed a flyer for a fire show and live music at a bar/restaurant right outside of town and thought “Why not? Let’s go check it out”. Well, what we walked into was a little different. We arrived, hoping for the fire show but the place felt a little “culty”, maybe where people go when they run out of travel money, want to do some drugs, and some other things that don’t feel appropriate discussing here… We decided it was not the place for us, and made our way back to Pai feeling a little strange about what we had just stumbled into. Oh well, here’s to new experiences!

Pai Canyon

Sadly, the next day, Michelle was hit with some food poisoning so we took it easy and rested. We did make a stop at Pai Canyon when she was feeling slightly up for it. I guess we wanted to make sure she had EVERY experience a traveler might have in Thailand (oops!). The little sliver of rust-colored desert-like formations resembled a mini version of Utah. It was very beautiful!

We would have loved to spend more time in Pai but we had plans already booked for the next couple of days that we were WAY more excited about.

Making Dreams Come True

We headed back to Chiang Mai for the most exciting part of the whole trip. After a night of rest, we were picked up by a van and made our way to Elephant Nature Park. Chiang Mai is known for having many elephant “sanctuaries”, however, many are not ethical and are just a show for tourists.

While planning this trip, we did a lot of research before booking and made sure that where we were headed was the most ethical place around. We chose Elephant Nature Park because of the amazing work they do rescuing, not only elephants, but also buffalo, cats, dogs, and many other animals.

There are a few different options available for touring Elephant Nature Park but we booked the overnight stay to get as much time there as we could squeeze into our trip. When we arrived, we dropped off our luggage and the tour (and tears) started right away. If anyone doesn’t know, Sam’s mom, Michelle, LOVES elephants and this kind of experience has been a dream of hers for just about forever. It was such an incredible experience but it was even more special to share it with her.

We toured the grounds, the Elephant Kitchen, and met some of the sweet souls that now call this restful place home. We were in a group of about 8 but we were right in front, behind the guide to make sure we could hear everything he was sharing. Our guide was amazing, so friendly and knowledgable, ready to answer all of our questions. He had grown up not far from the sanctuary and is like family to the founder of the ENP, Lek. He even introduced us to her which was such a special moment. We were all starstruck, not exactly sure how to greet this woman who has done such amazing work for the animals.

You can see Lek in the movie “Love and Bananas” or in the Thailand episode of “Somebody Feed Phil”. Even better, take a trip and visit Elephant Nature Park yourself!

Meeting the Elephants

Each individual elephant has there own mahout, a person who has taken a long time to bond with the elephant and takes care of them all day and most nights. Since the elephants in Elephant Nature Park are all rescued from logging, circuses, or other mistreatment, they are used to being around people. They rarely home wild elephants unless injured and not able to survive in the wild any longer. The majority of the elephants have been raised by people in captivity in one way or another. It was really cool to see how the elephants interact with their mahouts and to see just a glimpse of the bond they all have!

Some of the elephants we met during our time at ENP are:

Lucky, named this because she has quite the story. She was a logging elephant that was overworked and had a miscarriage while working. This caused her to be depressed and not willing/able to work which only led to abuse by her keepers. She took a slingshot to the eye and more abuse to the other so she is now blind. This poor girl has now bonded with a few other older injured elephants and they hang out together all day long.

One of these elephants that are “lucky” enough to have Lucky as a friend is Thaikoon. Thaikoon was injured by a landmine and has a severely injured foot. The sanctuary provides her with a fresh bandage every day to prevent infection, especially since she loves to spend time in the river!

Medo (unsure about the spelling) is another one of Lucky’s friends. She is an old lady at ENP. She has a broken hip that never properly healed but she doesn’t let it stop her from getting around the sanctuary. It may just take her a little longer than the others.

A couple more of the elephants we “met” or were introduced to include Sukjai, which means Happy Heart, and naughty Jenny (a baby who loves to get into everything), along with many more. Our guide took us around and shared all about the elephants at the sanctuary, what their daily life is like, and how they have come to adjust to life in their new world. You could tell he loved his job and the work they are doing at ENP.

A Magical Experience

Along with walking around and learning about the elephants, we also got to make sure food for them in the Elephant Kitchen. Because the older gals need softer food, we made some “delicious” rice balls for them made of cooked rice, beans, and banana. The staff then can put any medications needed for the elephants like pain meds into the balls.

We feel like we could write forever about this experience (and just might eventually write a more detailed post for the blog) but we will end it here for now. The entire stay at Elephant Nature Park was more than we could have imagined and we are so happy to have Michelle with us when we went.

The work they do for the animals, not just elephants, but also cats, dogs, pigs, buffalo, and more, is truly incredible. If you are wanting to visit an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, please make sure to do your research ahead of time or trust us and go with Elephant Nature Park!

Chiang Rai

Although there was no competing with the elephants, we still had plenty of plans left for this trip. Our next destination was the city of Chiang Rai. The city itself is not the most exciting, however, there are plenty of sights to see in the surrounding area. We booked a day tour to visit a lot of them and had a wonderful time. Here are some of the stops we made on the day tour:

Wat Rong Khun a.k.a The White Temple.

This temple, although recognized as a place of worship, is actually designed as a piece of art. The exterior is white with pieces of mirror forming a mosaic on the outside. While on the inside you will find an extensive and detailed mural with a wide variety of pictures and symbolism including Michael Jackson, Kung Fu Panda, and George W. Bush. Thankfully we were with a guide while visiting because she explained to us the meaning of the art which changed our whole perspective on it all. We wish we could share this place with you in more detail but photos are not allowed of the main room of the temple.

Wat Rong Suea Temple a.k.a Blue Temple

Absolutely stunning inside and out. This temple was designed by an apprentice of the artist that designed the temple above. The outside is dressed in blue with intricate gold details while the inside is full of detailed paintings like the White Temple. Luckily, we were able to take some pictures on the inside of this temple!

Baan Dam Museum a.k.a The Black House

Most likely the most interesting museum we have ever been to. The large black structure of a building was filled with items from a man’s collection of art and animal bones, The Baan Dam Museum is a famous museum in Chiang Rai because of its unique collection and oh is it unique. It left us feeling a little strange and we wondered what the man was like before he died since he had such a peculiar interest!

Getting Close to Myanmar

One of the stops we made on this tour was at the border of Myanmar. Although closed due to covid, we still were able to stand across the river from another country. It was really interesting to be so close to another country in this way, realizing that it really just is our made-up lines on a map that separate boundaries like this.

Another close stop we made to Myanmar was the Golden Triangle. This is a viewpoint and tourist spot where you can be standing in Thailand and see both Myanmar and Laos. The region was huge in the drug trade and the title comes from the sales of the “black gold” (opium).

Doi Inthanon National Park – Through the Jungle

After exploring the region around Chiang Rai we headed back to Chiang Mai. One of our last adventures while in northern Thailand was visiting Doi Inthanon National Park. However, instead of going the traditional tourist route, we spent the day hiking through the jungle with a member of the Karen Hilltribe through Ethnic Hilltribe Eco Trails.

Our guide took us on a LONG and challenging hike through the forest of Doi Inthanon and through a Karen Hilltribe village. He shared about different plants and animals, and how they are used in different ways from kids’ toys to medicine. We even got to drink the water from the inside of a plant he chopped with his machete! It was such a unique experience to hike through the forest with a guide who grew up with it and we learned so much. We ended the day with sore legs and tired eyes but loved the unique experience we got exploring the national park this way.

Farewell to the North

Our two weeks in northern Thailand were PACKED with so much, including some things we didn’t even get around to discussing in this post! We had so much fun exploring the big city of Bangkok, exploring the caves of Pai, cooking (and eating) some delicious Thai food, and of course, interacting with the gentle beasts at Elephant Nature Park with Michelle.

Although we had a few hiccups here and there, we had an incredible time in Northern Thailand with Sam’s mom and can’t wait to bring her on more adventures in the future (and any other family willing to meet us somewhere around the world!). We only wish we had some more time with her so we could all head south together and see what else Thailand has to offer!