It’s been 24 years since last setting foot on The ‘Land of Smiles’. One would be excused for thinking a lot has changed in nearly a quarter of a century, so no better way to find out than to head back as part of a week long adventure through Northern Thailand courtesy of adventure travel specialist Intrepid.
I found myself on a small group tour consisting of 12 people including the local Intrepid tour guide, Ant ‘in your pants’… as she jocularly put it. Following two swift flights from Stansted via Dubai, we arrived in Bangkok just in time for a delicious river side meal at The Deck overlooking the impressive Wat Arun Ratchavararam temple. We were on the Intrepid original trip style, which offers a nice balance between activities and free time whilst offering well-located tourist-class hotels and include some meals.
A well deserved rest at the comfortable 4* Nouvo City Hotel was followed by an early start to catch the local public bus for our journey north to the ancient temple city of Sukhothai. With expectations of a local bus built from part wood part metal with a mandatory selection of farm animals stowed in the back, you can imagine the relief when discovering a luxurious fully air-conditioned ‘road-yacht’ with all the trimmings including toilet and USB charger – no kidding!
A couple of stops and approximately 6 hours later we arrived in the ancient temple city of Sukhothai. A UNESCO World Heritage City housing a vast number of historical sites and temple ruins. A brief (but intense) panic later as a result of nearly losing my phone, we boarded our private ‘Songthaew’ (meaning two rows) passenger vehicle for a brief transfer to the absolutely delightful 3* Le Charme Resort. This hotel is conveniently located just opposite the historical park and within 10 mins drive from Sukhothai city centre where we explored the night market, indulged in some delicious local street food washed down with the now obligatory Chang Beer.
After a hearty breakfast the following day, we mounted our two-wheelers for our first of two bicycle tours on this holiday itinerary. The historical park hosts over 190 ruins across a sprawling site of approximately 70 square kilometers so this was a great way to see as much as we could within the allocated 3-4 hours of our tour. Temperatures this time of year range between 30-35c so a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water are a must.
To finish the cycle tour, our local guide Ant had arranged a surprise home-cooked picnic lunch provided by her family featuring a Massaman curry and sticky rice pudding. I’ve had a lot of Massaman curries in my life but this one topped the lot…by some margin, thanks Ant!! The rest of the day was spent relaxing around the hotel pool and making use of the resort facilities including their on-site spa.
Next day saw us departing by private minivans on our next leg of the journey to our village homestay in Lampang, just an hour east from Chiang Mai. This was the real deal, an immersive, raw 24 hours off the grid to experience the Thai way of life. No satellite TV, no WiFi, air-con or any of that. Perhaps not your cuppa green tea I hear you think to yourself so what if I told you that what ensued following our arrival were the best 12 hours of our trip?!?
After checking into our basic but comfortable rooms (can I just say it helps being a minority male in these circumstances), we swapped our phones for aprons and got stuck straight into our first Thai cooking class featuring a local curry called Nam Prik Ong. This was fun-filled experience complemented nicely with a musical performance from a local band and an impromptu head and shoulders massage to aid the digestive process. We then proceeded to the garden where we were treated to a lovely dance performance followed by the launch of two “khom loi” containing personal messages that we had written. Buddhists believe that the act of releasing the lantern during the full moon frees themselves of bad luck from the past year, and generates good fortune in the coming year.
A later than usual evening including banter and laughter aplenty swiftly led us to an early morning visit to the local Buddhist temple to make an offering, before we sped off once again on our second cycle tour of the trip. This tour cut through local villages and paddy fields, taking us to a mushroom farm and a village shop selling locally produced goods, at a considerably lower price than you would find in the main cities. We also visited the local school across the road where we purchased some small items at their fair to help raise funds. We then donated these items to the lovely Mrs. Somket Silphisuth family as a gesture of goodwill for looking after us.
We boarded our Songthaews that afternoon and headed to much anticipated Chiang Mai, a laid-back, hip city popularized by travellers and capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. This was to be our home for the next couple of days. No sooner had we ditched our suitcases and we were off into town to sample the various senses Chiang Mai had to offer by means of culinary, shopping and massage therapy. Seriously, if you’re going to do any shopping don’t wait for Khao San Road in Bangkok as prices are leaner and shop owners less aggressive!
Day 6 took us to a local market to collect fresh produce for our second and more extensive cooking class. This time we were in the hands of the established Cooking@Home Culinary School run by Pom and her family who took us through a 3-course meal including Chicken Green Curry, Pad Thai and Tom Yum soup. I think we all impressed ourselves with our cooking prowess as we feasted on our own truly wonderful lunch.
But what really made this adventure special was a visit to Chang Chill Elephant Sanctuary, nestled deep in nearby mountains that took minibuses, 4×4 jeeps and a short walk through a rice paddy field to reach. What greeted us was the most extraordinary sight of half a dozen elephants roaming freely whilst being guarded by their personal “mahout” or elephant keeper. This profession usually starts at an early age when the keeper is assigned an elephant that they will remain bonded to for the remainder of their lives. This forward thinking ethical tourism model will hopefully represent the future of elephant tourism as they hope to eradicate cruelty to elephants through this incredibly impressive effort. The sanctuary also forms part of the Intrepid Foundation, a not-for-profit entity of Intrepid Group that you will be asked to donate towards as part of your tour.
The evening was spent relaxing in Chiang Mai at our own leisure before an optional visit to the impressive Doi Suthep temple complex, approximately 30 mins outside Chiang Mai, and where we were blessed by a Buddhist Monk as well as partaking in several other spiritual rituals. Besieged by lorry loads of tourists, this was the most overcrowded venue on our itinerary and one that I would personally avoid in exchange for a more urban experience showcasing the old part of Chiang Mai.
A few hours relaxation time in Chiang Mai that afternoon and it was time to head over to the main railway station to board our overnight express train that would take us back to busy Bangkok for our final day. If like me, you remember the days of open window fan cooled carriages then this couldn’t be a more contrasting experience. This near new train had a cooling system fit for a city morgue so ensure you’ve got extra layers at the ready and the lights remain on all night. That said, this was possibly the best sleep I had throughout the entire trip despite the total onboard alcohol ban.
Arriving perfectly refreshed and on time in Bangkok, we were given the day at leisure which resulted in the group fragmenting only to congregate later that day for the big finale as part of the Intrepid 30 years celebration. Whilst the majority had embarked on a whistle-stop tour of sprawling Bangkok, Annette and I decided on a more urban flavoured DIY tour of nearby streets and canals surrounding the famous Khao San Road. This is a cool way of experiencing local Bangkok backstreet life including a visit to the local barber, lunch at a boutique travellers lodge and of course the now mandatory daily massage. And all this whilst experiencing the first thunderstorm in 7 days…talk about finishing with a bang!
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