Wat Chedi Luang

One of the most impressive sights in all of Chiang Mai may possibly be the view of the city from the airplane!  Coming in from Bangkok, we were shocked to see a lush emerald green landscape dotted with the striking orange tiles of the town's many temples.  In fact, Chiang Mai, with its more than 300 wats, has almost as many temples as Bangkok itself!)  One of the most impressive religious buildings in town is the immense Wat Chedi Luang which is located smack dab in the center of Chiang Mai's "old city."

Wat Chedi Luang is known as "the Royal Pagoda," and once housed the famed "Emerald Buddha" now enshrined in Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok.  (You can be assured that there is some serious gold-leafing going on here!)  Built in 1391, the temple has seen its fair share of damage throughout its 600+ year history, and since no one actually knows what the original structure looked like, only portions of the temple have experienced restoration.  In fact, since the stairways leading up to the apex of the majestic temple have all but worn away, tourists are not allowed to visit the beautiful golden Buddha figures on each side of the structure.  No worries, there is still plenty to see here.  Our favorite feature of Wat Chedi Luang was its rows of stone elephants which protruded from the sides of the orange brick walls.  The stone "nagas" were also breath-takingly intricate.  (The naga snake, which is probably the most prevalent iconography in Thailand next to the Buddha image itself, has seven heads and looks quite fearsome as it hoods the Buddha for protection.)

The giant square complex that houses Wat Chedi Luang also features more modern temple structures.  We especially liked the little smiley face decorations found on the smaller chocolate brown colored temple to the west of Wat Chedi Luang.  Inside was a fantastically realistic representation of a famed Buddhist sage - created out of wax! No detail was left out, even down to the age spots! Now that is some fancy wax footwork!

Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure you keep your ears open while walking around the perimeter of the temple.  I am now kicking myself for not taking a small movie here; the frogs (or miniature water fowl?) were putting on quite a extraordinary cacophony of music for us, like nothing we had ever heard.

Wat Chedi Luang - Sri Phum, Mueang Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai

Maetang Elephant Park (Mae Taeng)

The most popular attraction in the Chiang Mai area has to be the “elephant trek.”  There are many outfits in the area that provide the elephant trek/ elephant show/ bamboo raft/ ox-cart ménage à quatre, and any visitor will not doubt be bamboozled with brochures for different elephant camps as soon as they arrive at the regional airport.  We had made out reservations in advance, and thus, as soon as we touched down in Chiang Mai, we were whisked off by private car to the Maetang Elephant Park north of Mae Rim.

We arrived about an hour later to a rainy mud-drenched camp.  And even though the weather wasn't ideal, it kept the majority of nearby tourists away, and thus the camp was fairly quiet.   An amusing sign at the entrance to the camp read “Please keep away from our elephants!  They could run into you.”  We knew right then that it was going to be an interesting day indeed.

Since we were the first couple to arrive on the scene that day, we were able to pay our entrance fee and mount our elephant all within five minutes!  (One thing you must remember in Thailand, is to have small bills at all times.  We certainly needed them at the entrance of the elephant camp to buy small bushels of sugarcane and bananas.  Apparently, the elephants needed the sugar and Potassium as an energy boost to hoist their charge up the steep sides of mountains!)

Our guide, or “mahout,” was nothing if not brusque.  There was no “sawasdee kraps", no introductions - nuthin'.  That’s cool.  It was early in the morning.  Perhaps he had not had his Dunkin’ Donuts yet (see “eats” below).

As we traveled up alongside the Maetang River we became witness to a village in a state of transition - with new roads and tourist structures being built to accommodate the growing influx of visitors.  Eventually, we ditched the path and headed straight into the water, and as you might imagine, the trip was not smooth.  A ride on an Asian elephant offers a slow, lumbering motion that bumps you up and down out of your seat.  It is no wonder the mahout was stand-offish and quiet.  He probably has terrible back pain!  And then there’s the controversial prodding!  To keep the elephant moving in one direction or another, the mahouts must use their feet to nudge the back of the elephants’ ears to achieve the desired motion, and if that does not work, they pull out this stick with a hook at its end.  (We had noticed that our elephant had a little nick on his side that was bleeding, and while we had hoped it was from a prickly tree or something, we knew that we were being too idealistic!)  But the worst was yet to come!  As we left the riverbank, we climbed up a very steep hill into the jungle and our elephant clearly wasn't having it.  Right then, we could have sworn someone in the jungle bushes used a ricochet to hit the elephant in the back to make him go up the mountain! 

All animal cruelty aside, the jungle countryside was quite beautiful.  The ride through the thickets was ultimately quite relaxing, and eventually, we even got used to the strange rambling motion of the elephant.  (Still, plan on locating a Thai massage at the end of your day – see “essentials” below.)  Perhaps the most humorous moment came when we passed a little stand selling sugar cane and bananas for our elephant.  The “roadside” stand was actually located in a tree so that you could purchase the items while at the same height while on top of the elephant.  Our elephant was quite the fan of sugar cane and bananas; he ate them both whole.  Who needs peeling?

Eventually the mahout dismounted the elephant by climbing off his head, and then by pulling his ear, he lead us to a clearing that doubled as a faux "hill-tribe" village (see “Baan Tong Luang” below for more information).  Ultimately, this pause in the day was nothing more than a tourist stopover for us to buy small trinkets from the local Lisu tribe children.  These kids are cute, but pushy.  They will be try to sell you anything and everything. If their bracelets and plastic chickens do not entice, then they will switch over to a can of soda! 

Next up was a trip back to the camp in a cart driven by two oxen.  Due to the muddy conditions and uneven pavement, this journey was even more bumpy and uncomfortable than the elephant ride!  We were just laughing the entire time… that is until our guide got out and made us take over the reigns!

Of course the day was not quite over just yet!  After the oxen ride, we were ushered back in to the elephant camp to check out the “elephant show.”  Oh boy, here we go…  The story goes that back in the day, elephants were used heavily for foresting purposes.  Now that there are stricter laws and less deforestation, many of the mahouts (and their elephants) had found themselves without work.  The various camps around Chiang Mai now give these local villagers jobs, and keep the elephants well fed and cared for - well, except for that ricochet and prodding thing!

The elephant shows begin at 10:00 AM, and are scheduled depending on the language of the groups that are visiting that day.  During the 45-minute exposition, you can witness elephants performing any number of odd tricks (kicking soccer balls into baskets, maneuvering hula-hoops, or making obnoxious noises on command)!  The crowning moment, however, is one that is almost too amazing to believe…  You’ve seen the YouTube videos of elephants painting, the ones that people claim are scams!  Well, your trusty “Set of Drifters” assure you, these elephants really can paint - pictures - portraits - you name it!  One of the two artists that day painted a nice ‘80s inspired floral T-shirt design which later sold for about 800 baht ($25 USD).  More impressive however was the self-portrait which another smarty-pants elephant later signed with its name!  We certainly had a greater appreciation of the elephant after seeing this show; they are very smart creatures indeed.

Not to be outdone, the elephant show is followed by a relaxing voyage down the Maetang River on a traditional bamboo raft!  However simple, this was actually one of our favorite parts of the experience.  The scenery was just so lush and exquisite and the lull of the water was altogether relaxing and refreshing.  When our guide started softly singing a Thai song against the aural backdrop of the haunting, chirping wet jungle, we were in heaven.  Similar to Mexico City's floating Xochimilco Gardens, another canoe soon popped up out of nowhere offering longan berries and selling beer!  How could we say no?  Then, it was time to take to the helm of the raft! 

The “elephant trek” adventure at Maetang Elephant Park runs 365 days a year from 8:00 AM to 2:00 PM.  It also includes a Thai buffet lunch which honestly was not half bad.  All together, the package cost us about 1,200 baht for the two of us.  At $40 USD, the price is a great value for day full of unforgettable adventure!  Set of Drifters tip:  Check out the gift shop.  All stationary, bookmarks and picture frames are made out of real elephant dung!  Now that’s what we call a memorable souvenir to bring back to friends and family!

Set of Drifters video:  For video from this event, check out our YouTube channel!

Maetang Elephant Park – 35/1 Munmueang Road, T. Prasing A. Muang, Mae Taeng, 011 (66) 53-20-6047 or 011 (66) 53-20-6454


Chiang Dao Cave (Chiang Dao)

"Set of Drifters" highly recommends visiting points north of Chang Mai, either via taxi or by renting a car (see "essentials" below).  With fog lacing the mountains surrounding the Mae Rim region, we set out one day from Chiang Mai's city center and soon found that we were in for a full day of intrigue and mystery!  Continuing north along R107, we meandered through hundreds of daring switchbacks, intense mountain views, and charming small Thai villages.  About 72 km. north of Chiang Mai lies the blink-and- you'll-miss-it 'burg of Chiang Dao.  While the town itself is interesting enough for its unique, ruddy wooden architecture, it's the side trip to the enigmatic "Tham Chiang Dao" which is really the star attraction here.  We have to say this place is really special, and perhaps our favorite location in all of Thailand; it was easiest the best surprise!

Outside the grandiose entrance to the caves lies a stunning emerald pool complete with large koi fish and odd jungle vegetation.  (You can buy food for the fish at a nearby stand, but believe me, they are not want for lunch or dinner!)  Here, the colors and overall set-up may border on kitsch; the chedi and weird swan-boat-thing floating in the pond are only outdone by the painted siren with water-spigot ponytail at water's edge.  Still, there is something quite magical about the misty mountains that envelop this space that make it all quite beguiling (see "Chiang Dao temples" below for more information).  As we climbed the stairs into the mountain and paid our entrance fee, we suddenly found ourselves above the roofs of the pavilion leading inside the cave (!?)  We were soon greeted by a myriad of beautiful gold Buddha statues populating an impressive altar!  This anteroom resembled a "discovered treasure scene" right out of an Indiana Jones movie - complete with ambient light filtering in from the crevasse in the ceiling, but minus any menacing elements.  While the "treasure room" was pretty crowded with tourists snapping photos, overall it did not seem like many Westerners had caught on to this particular attraction of the Lanna region.  That's a good thing since, as you descend into the heart of the caves, space comes at a premium!

The Chiang Dao Caves complex supposedly extends more than 12 kilometers into the mountain, but only five main areas are accessible for safety reasons.  While two of the caves, Tham Phra Nawn and Tham Seua Dao are illuminated by electric lights, the rest must be discovered with a trusty kerosene lamp at hand.  So, you have a choice to make.  Do you simply venture into the passages lit by harsh florescent bulbs, or do you hire a tour guide for 100 baht to whisk you through the darker, more interesting caves?  Since 100 baht is only about $3 in American dollars, this choice is not that difficult to make.

Once inside the tunnels, our guide kept pointing at things and saying words like "gai" (chicken), "kai" (egg), "hua chang," (elephant head), and "naga" (snake).  These were the names of the fantastic gypsum crystal and sulphur formations that our guide was attempting to point out to us.  There was definitely a language barrier here for us, and we eventually found ourselves tuning the guide out and listening out for drops of water instead!  (A number of bats can also be heard squeaking all around you.  But be prepared, the aroma of bat guano tends to linger in your nostrils for awhile!)

Since the weekend we were visiting northern Thailand just happened to be a Buddhist holiday, many local villagers were on pilgrimage visits to the surprising altars inside the caves.  It is said that an old hermit sage lived on Doi Chiang Dao for over a thousand years, and because he became so intimate with the spiritual deity realm, he convinced the beings to "endow the cave with seven magical wonders."  (These are now the sites of the interior altars.)  Of course, if a traveler wanders off the main paths to look for, say, the "naga citadel" or the "immortal elephant," and steals even something as small as a rock from the caves, he will fall under a terrible curse and remain lost in the labyrinth of unmarked, darkened passageways!  That would be bad. In fact, if you choose not go with a guide on the three darkened caves, you will be courting certain danger!  These caves are completely pitch black, and you just may miss the edge of that 20 meter cliff that drops off into a river far below!

Set of Drifters tip:  If you have any accessibility issues, Chiang Dao is going to be a problem for you.  A lazy stroll through the huge, well-lit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico this was not.  The interior of Tham Chiang Dao was hot, muggy and difficult to maneuver.  You will be required to climb a number of steps just to pass through the entrance, and once inside, there are more than a handful of VERY tight squeezes that you will have to endeavor - over, under and through rocky crevices!  (This place would never pass ADA inspection in America!)  Make sure you are in good shape when you set out on this activity... and bring a bottle of water!

Set of Drifters video:  For video from this event, check out our YouTube channel!

Tham Chiang Dao - 5 km. west of route 107; turnoff located about 72 km north of Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao

Chiang Dao temples (Chiang Dao)

It only takes about an hour or so to reach Chiang Dao from Chiang Mai via R107, but upon arrival, it is as though you have traveled back in time.  The Tham Chiang Dao complex is home to so much more than just the caves.  Temples that represent a handful of different architectural styles are littered with a heaping dose of Buddhist relics, and were truly some of the most stunning we had seen in all of Southeast Asia!  The ancient chedi here are overgrown with moist foliage, almost swallowed completely by the encroaching jungle of Doi Chiang Dao.  Close to the entrance to the caves lies a cemetery... not a cemetery in the traditional sense, as Buddhists have their bodies cremated and their remains housed in small stupas or chedis.  Sadly, we could not find a lot of information about the particular religious importance of this area, but it is said that the complex is one of the most sacred in all of northern Thailand. 

As we ventured back to our car, we stumbled upon one amazingly intricate architectural gem after another.  One bot stood out from all the others with its intense red and gold decor sharply contrasting against the green of the invading moss.  This temple also boasted a moss-covered patio that surrounded it on all sides.  (Clearly, the same facilities team which maintains Bangkok's Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo is not available to help out at this one.)  The effect of the moss and small little shrines scattered about gave this temple a haunted feel - which is actually right up our alley!

The final temple on the grounds was an über-modern white and gold edifice set up on a grassy hill.  The nagas protruding from the back of this temple were pretty gnarly.  We did not spend enough time to investigate since it had started to rain pretty steadily at this point.  Although similar in style to the chedi in Ayutthaya, the elevation, topography and and mist falling from the top of the mountain make this an eerie, but magical place to spend an afternoon.  We highly recommend saving time for a picnic at the Chiang Dao complex after making the aforementioned trek through the caves.

Set of Drifters tip:  There is even more to explore in the nearby hills and valleys surrounding the large mountain Doi Chiang Dao.  While driving through Chiang Dao we had glimpsed an amazing huge golden stupa high in the misty mountains.  We spent about an hour trudging through muddy dirt roads (all filled with pot-holes) looking for the thing but could never locate it!  Instead, we stopped off at another cool temple closer in to the village of Chiang Dao.  This unnamed wat was under renovation, yet still impressed with some of the most wicked nagas we had seen yet - and a monolithic white seated Buddha in the back!  (We love how the local scaffolding to reach Buddha's crown is made out of harvested bamboo wood!)

Tham Chiang Dao - 5km west of route 107; turnoff located about 72 km north of Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao

Baan Tong Luang Hill-tribe Cultural Exchange (Mae Rim)

The Baan Tong Luang Hill-tribe Preservation Village was certainly one of the more unusual attractions we visited while in all of Thailand.  We were determined to meet some "Long Neck Karens," and darn it, we were going to see them by hook or by crook!  What is a "Long Neck Karen" you ask?  Oh, you've all seen them numerous times in various issues of National Geographic!  These are the young "exotic women" with elongated necks adorned with shiny brass rings - and they and their families live scattered all across Northern Thailand!  Of course, their history and place in today's Thai society is much more complex than we could possibly delve into here, but in essence, they live in places like the Baan Tong Luang "eco-agricultural" village as "refugees" from villages just along the border of neighboring Burma.  The people of the "hill-tribes" (a phrase thrown around a lot in Chiang Mai) are often characterized as living a simpler, less modern life than that of the "regular" Thai population.  These are people that are definitely living off the land - or their creative artisan endeavors.

While the actual tribes live in areas further north of Chiang Mai, the tourist industry of Thailand has engineered places like Baan Tong Luang where tourists can meet (and have "cultural exchange") with people of various hill-tribes all in one setting.  Though we would have preferred the more natural setting, we were running out of time in Chiang Mai, and decided not to attempt the three hour drive up through the muddy mountain passages in our rental car.  So instead, we ended up at Baan Tong Luang Village, and what's known as a "mixed hill-tribe village," in that there are five different tribes living in the immediate area.  But, the question remains...  Is this majestic hill-tribe village for real, or is it Memorex?  While we have no doubt that the village is a working agricultural location, the set-up was all too-perfect, all too-serene, all too well-equipped to be a "real hill-tribe village."

From the parking lot, you must pass across a miniature rice paddy, and then over a series of rickety suspension bridges!  These touches certainly add to the rural flavor of the village, but again, as you pass a requisite pen of pigs, you are left to wonder if this not all for show!  Whether the village was actually authentic, or just some Disney-fied jungle Swiss Family Robinson charade, it ultimately did not really matter.  The wet and misty afternoon certainly created an evocative mood not soon forgotten.

Once in the village proper, it really was like being at the zoo, but instead of witnessing animals' natural habitats, you are experiencing human families from five different tribes "living" and working in their regional type of housing.  While you can certainly take photos, we felt somewhat uneasy because, in essence, the different hill-tribe peoples were "on-display" for us!  It is best to buy goods from them so that they may, in turn, bring money back to their real tribe (which might be located hundreds of miles away!)

Of course, on this "tour of five different hill-tribe villages," they save the best for last.  The infamous Long Neck Karens where at the top of the hill and clearly takes up the largest part of the village's real estate.  There are a few conflicting stories about the origin of the brass coils "Long Necks" are so well-known for.  Some say that the coils are added to make the women unattractive, and less-likely to be captured by slave traders!  Others claim that, historically, Karen-Padaung women wore the brass coils to protect themselves from tiger attacks in the jungles of Burma!  Now, it seems their benefactors encourage the women to wear the brass rings solely to lure in tourism dollars!   It can be said that the "elongated necks" are a sign of beauty, and certainly the women dress in bright patterned clothes and wear make- up to appear exotic and, yes, even attractive to foreigners.  In truth, the coils (which are added as early as age five) do not actually lengthen a girl's neck.  When new "rings" are added to the coil, it pushes down their collar bone and upper ribs to give the appearance of an elongated neck.

We managed to meet quite a few of the Long Necks (who just happen to have unexpectedly attractive and high quality good for sale!  You may even see some of them weaving on looms as you pass by.  One Long Neck Karen was obviously trying to make it all the way to Hollywood; her glamor head shot was posted alongside herself in the traditional garb!  (The rumor here is that many of these woman today don't really wear the permanent brass rings around their neck.  They use a version which has a clasp for easy removal!

The grounds at Baan Tong Luang were beautiful and although it was raining, we managed to take in it's beauty and serenity even while many of the other visitors ambled by at a much quicker pace.  One thing to look out for are the missing men?  Perhaps they were out in the fields, or maybe this was another sign that this was not actually a functioning village at all?  Maybe these ladies and their kids are bussed in each day to "work" at the village for the sake of the visiting tourists.  Either way, at the "end of the road" you will find one of the few Christian churches we saw in all of Thailand...  You know there is some fishy political goings-ons in this place when the missionaries have taken root!

Baan Tong Luang is "open" daily.  With admission at 500 baht each (roughly $16 USD), this was actually one of the more expensive "attractions" we visited in Thailand.  Set of Drifters tip:  If visiting any of the Karen-Padaung, Akha, Lisu, or Hmong hill-tribes, we suggest that you bring some toys or clothes for the children of the political refugees which reside in the camps.  The hill-tribe people are still not officially recognized by the government in Thailand and therefore do not get the same support as full-fledged citizens.  They are "a people without country."  When we starting handing out Disney markers and matchbox cars we had purchased from the Los Angeles airport on our way out of town, the children of the village came running.  Most of them were really sweet, and the mothers, quite thankful.  Some though do seem to carry a little chip of entitlement, so make sure to remind them that sharing is always the best way to go!

Baan Tong Luang Eco-agricultural Village - located on R1096 (the Mae Rim/ Samoeng Road), just east of the Maesa Elehpant Camp; ask your local concierge to show you on a map or, trust us, you will get lost!

Traditional Lanna wedding procession

While driving on the twisty roads through the emerald green countryside of Chiang Mai, make sure to keep you eyes on the road!!  However, if you are simply a passenger, make sure you look out for traditional Lanna wedding processions!  In fact, you can't miss them! Bride and groom are dressed in traditional Thai garb, linked at the wrist by a sacred white cotton garment, and seated on the back of a mighty Asian elephant!  Their coterie of family and friends lead the charge, dressed in a themed color and holding colorful ribbons and flags.  It truly is a sight to behold! (Just try not to slow down and take a photo!)

The wedding tradition finds its roots in the prominent families of the "Lanna Kingdom," the geographical area which includes Chiang Mai and other nearby villages.  (Before the city of Ayutthaya rose to power, Thailand was somewhat divided between the Lanna region in the north and the Sukothai region in the south.  "Lannathai" means "the land of a million rice fields" - and believe me, there were many along the 107 Highway!)  If a wedding on the back of an elephant sounds like your cup of tea, the Thai Elephant Conservation Camp in Lampang offers Lanna- style weddings each Valentine's Day for just around 40,000 baht!  Sounds too steep?  Then, just be sure to keep an eye out from the passenger's side of your rental car!

Thai Elephant Conservation Center - Km. 28 – 28 Lampang, Chiang Mai Road, Tambon Wiangtaan, Lampang, 011 (66) 54-24-7875


Monkey Centre (Mae Rim)

One of the most bizarre attractions we have ever experienced (in the entire world) is located in the Chiang Mai region of Thailand.  The story goes as such: It was pouring rain, and we were at a loss for what to do.  (There simply would be no jungle trekking this afternoon!)  In fact, as we drove past the odd-looking building on the south side of R1096 (the Mae Rim Road to Samoeng), we were certain the place was closed due to the bad weather.  Still, we thought we would take a chance. 

At the entrance we were greeted by a young Thai teenager who told us that the Monkey Centre was, in fact, open for business!  She sold us some sodas and potato chips and a basket of rambutan for the monkeys.  (The baby monkey at the entrance seemed to prefer the chips instead!)  At the Monkey Centre, visitors can throw the fruit at the resident monkeys and watch them scramble and fight each other for the food.  (How charming!)  The monkeys were somewhat aggressive.  Then again, we were probably some of the only people feeding them that day since the rain kept the crowds away. 

The monkeys at the Monkey Centre are called macaques.  They are the most widespread primate genus, ranging from northern Africa all the way to the islands of Japan.  (At the time however, we assumed the monkeys were "gibbons" because of the ubiquitous widespread advertising campaign for a local zip-line adventure activity called "flight of the gibbon.")  A number of the macaques in the park were in chained up to trees, somewhat more free than those in the cages nearby who were much fiercer, and who can blame them?

The “monkey show” itself was such a weird and surreal experience - partly due to the fact that by the time the show started we were one of the only two couples in the audience.  The other weird thing about the show was the emcee.  She just happened to be the same person who sold us the entrance tickets, potato chips and fruit! She was like a one-woman show. Her vocal performance was full of so much energy and bravado - and yet there were only four people in the audience!  (The broken English only added to the charm.) 

So, what exactly does a “monkey show” consist of?  Well, quite simply, baboons performing several different circus acts.  Look, they can ride a mini-bicycle!  Wow, they can shoot hoops!  Oh my, they can count and perform math!  They can even sit on your lap and give you a kiss; just don't touch them whatever you do!  While the "monkey basketball" was not quite as impressive as "elephant soccer," the show, with its wild commentary and euro-house soundtrack, was certainly more quirky - and “Dech,” the main macaque, can also lift a mean dumbbell! 

While the website claims that none of their animals are taken from the wild, this is simply the type of attraction would not fly in the United States for politically correct reasons.  You will still enjoy it all the same!  The Monkey Centre opens at 10:00 AM and closes at 5:00 PM.  During operating hours, they hold six shows, the first of which starts at 11:00 AM.  (The show lasts only about 35 minutes, but you are welcome to hang out and watch the main attractions "monkey around" as long as you like.)  Prices for entrance to the Monkey Centre are 200 baht for adults (about $6.50 USD) and 100 baht for children, making this quite an affordable jaunt.

Set of Drifters tip:  Watch out for that pig-tailed macaque at the close of the show!  He wants your tips - and he will walk right up to you and take it from your hand (in exchange for some monkey balm).  Then, cheekily, he will check to make sure what you have given him is real money!

Set of Drifters video:  For video from this event, check out our YouTube channel

Monkey Centre - 87 M.1 T.Mae Rim (Samoeng Road), Mae Rim, Chiang Mai, 011 (66) 53-29-9414 or 011 (66) 81-885-1912