“My name is Ariyana,” she said, her French peaking through her English. I had just arrived at Nature’s Way House, a hostel in Chiang Mai that doubles as a restaurant. Ariyana was one of my hostelmates. “I’m Corey. From Alabama,” I answered, and to this, she replied singing: “Sweet home, Alabama!”
An hour later, we were sauntering through Chiang Mai’s Saturday Market. The market boasted a variety clothes, jewelry, bags, and—most important to me—food. The two of us shared everything—native fruits (durian and longan), homemade juices (orange, passion fruit, carrot, and mango), sushi, and bite-sized desserts stuffed with rice and coconut milk. Our whole bounty cost us about 60 baht a piece (less than $2).
Thoroughly stuffed, we found a place to sit and people-watch. Ariyana, who had been barefoot the entire time, told me about her transition to veganism, how her parents didn’t understand her hippie ways. Every time I said “y’all,” she giggled; every time she stepped carelessly into a murky puddle, I cringed. I noticed how often everyone around me was smiling. It felt as though the town itself was greeting me: Sawadee kop, Corey! Welcome to Chiang Mai! What could go wrong in a place like this?
30 hours later…
It was 2AM when the British fellow in the bunk adjacent to mine started vomiting. After he and his buddy had been partying all night at the Thaphae Boxing Stadium, they stumbled into the room only to convince themselves to go back out. A few hours later, the Briton on the top bunk was leaning over the bedrail, decorating the floor with what looked like pad thai. When the puking stopped, he immediately went unconscious.
“Psst. You awake?”
It was Isabelle, a girl from Seattle who had replaced Ariyana in the bunk below me. “Yeah,” I whispered back. The sound of gurgling was heavy on the other side of the room. “We should probably wake him up,” I said. “Yeah,” she answered. After making him sip on water, Isabelle and I spent the next hour cleaning up his dinner. What at first was an extremely disgusting task quickly accelerated into something bizarrely comical. Here we were, two complete strangers, tip-toeing around, trying to clean up the puke of another stranger without making noise. We giggled through the last ten minutes of the process.
(To my non-American readers: next time you’re amongst a group of people who perpetuate negative stereotypes about Americans, I hope you’ll remember this story.)
I woke a few hours later, just as the taxi for Elephant Nature Park (ENP) pulled in. Sleep-deprived and unshowered, I boarded the van.
The ENP is a sanctuary that rescues domesticated elephants from inhumane environments and helps them reacclimatize to their natural setting. Instead of riding the gentle giants, you feed them, bathe them, and hear their stories. It was easy to tell that the ENP staff felt both urgency and deep respect for the plight of their rehabilitation center. Referring to a two-week-old calf born at the park, our guide said (with a smile): “You never pet that one. Never pet. He wild. He no suffer like others. One day, we prepare him for wild.”
It turns out that elephants, like horses, are intuitive creatures—the more anxious the approacher, the more anxious the elephant. The wariest elephants were the ones that had been most abused. “They are like people,” explained our guide. “Deep wounds take long time. Trust broken. Hard to heal.”
Despite their unfortunate pasts, the elephants at the ENP were a playful lot. As soon as they hit the stream, they were rolling around. Once in a while, they’d blast water up into the air from their trunks, showering each other (and their nearby caretakers).
Not a bad way to retire, eh?
A single-day visit at the ENP, which includes commute to and from the park and a huge vegetarian lunch, costs 2,500 baht (only $70). I highly recommend it.
The following day, I set out with one, simple intention: to wander the Old City. To be clear, my hostel was located right in the heart of it, but I hadn’t taken the time to explore the square. So, to make up for lost time, I spent most of the day walking, getting lost and unlost, venturing deeper into town and then back toward its canal-bound parameter.
If you’d like to see Thailand but feel overwhelmed by its densely-populated capital (Bangkok has a population of about 8.5 million people), Chiang Mai might be the place for you. It offers most of the same attractions as Bangkok—the street shopping, the massages, the cuisine, Muay Thai, breathtaking temples—but without the bustle.
By the time I finished walking the canal, my legs were sore and my stomach was growling. I took a table at the first restaurant I could find and brought my day of wandering to an end over a passion fruit smoothie and Tom Kha Kai (chicken coconut soup).
All for $1.80.